The Social Science Research Council (SSRC) has awarded its first round of “Social Media and Democracy Research Grants.” The 12 projects provide “systematic scholarly access to privacy-protected Facebook data to study the platform’s impact on democracy worldwide.” The SSRC is an independent, international nonprofit led by Alondra Nelson, a Columbia University Professor of Sociology and inaugural Dean of Social Science for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
Facebook data will be used by researchers to better understand the role of social media on politics and society, notably the spread of disinformation and fake news, and how social media users attach themselves to particular online narratives. Several of the projects analyze how social media has affected particular political events, including recent elections in Italy, Chile, and Germany, as well as public opinion in Taiwan. The projects also examine the relationship between Facebook and traditional news media, and delve into the complex question of what constitutes “fake news,” and how it can be distinguished from more fact-based reporting.
The researchers are drawn from disciplines including political science, public policy, communications, journalism and computer science, and are given access to Facebook data via the organization Social Science One, which partners academic researchers with industry to analyze the large amount of socially valuable information held by private companies. The SSRC “Social Media and Democracy Research Grants” initiative received funding from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, the Democracy Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, Omidyar Network, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
Eight of the grantees are from universities outside the U.S., but only two awards went to woman-led projects. Tanushree Mitra, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Virginia Tech, is the principal investigator on the project “Characterizing Mainstream and Nonmainstream Online News Sources in Social Media,” while Magdalena Saldaña, Assistant Professor in Journalism at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, is co-principal investigator on an analysis of fake news on Facebook and the 2017 Chilean election. Two of the projects had no female researchers at all (most of the research teams have between three and six members).
The use of actual Facebook data to better understand the role of propaganda in social media, and its effect upon elections and political opinion, is highly valuable. Moreover, the term “fake news” has become a cheap insult that is indiscriminately hurled about, and specifying what this term means and its real-world operation and impact is also important.
Unfortunately, the role of gender is not addressed in any of the projects being funded by the Social Media and Democracy Research Grants. This may be because most of the principal investigators are men. No statistics are provided to indicate what percentage of grant applications were by women. This kind of transparency is important. There is significant concern about how search engines like Google exhibit gender bias. Research efforts on the topic of democracy and media need to be transparent about their efforts to include women and minorities in their grantmaking process.
The research on fake news and bias in media should not replicate the problems of exclusion. We need more women and minority researchers to help us understand how fake news agents are exploiting gender norms in order to influence elections, and how they are particularly targeting female candidates in the upcoming elections with fake news that plays on these stereotypes.
Other questions that bear asking include: How often does gender—either overtly or by implication—factor into what are classified as “fake news” items? Are female politicians more likely to be the targets of fake news than their male counterparts? When social media groups are infiltrated by organized provocateurs, or by lone trolls, how often are gender-based wedge issues used to stir up antipathy to feminism and female candidates? On the consumer end, are there gender differences in how fake news items are perceived by social media users, and how likely they are to be shared? Should gender be a factor in considering how to combat fake news? And what is fake news, do women and men share the same definition of this phenomenon? A future round of grants with more female principal investigators, and a commitment to examine gender in social media, might provide some answers.
Long before we had what is known as fake news, there were more subtle forms of media bias. This bias has affected Hillary Clinton and other women candidates, and now Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and other female hopefuls for the Democratic nomination are facing the headwinds of being ignored, caricatured or tagged with the “unelectable” label. To counter these tendencies, and to inoculate women voters (and potential voters) against not just fake news but also low interest and low information, there are a range of female-centered political advocacy groups, the latest entry being Supermajority.
Supermajority stresses multiracial and intergenerational activism, training and mobilization around bread-and-butter gender equity issues like equal pay and childcare. It is led by former Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, and Executive Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Ai-jen Poo.
Supermajority aims to train and mobilize two million women over the next year to become politically active. The organization notes that women have comprised the majority of voters in every election since 1964, and women now occupy 127 seats in the current Congress (102 in the House, and 25 in the Senate).
No doubt Supermajority will be in town halls, living rooms and in the streets, but it’s also on Facebook and other platforms. Libby Chamberlain and Cortney Tunis, who co-founded the Facebook group Pantsuit Nation in 2016 in support of Hillary Clinton, are behind Supermajority’s online outreach.