Launching Multilingual Research Project Studying Election Disinformation

Craig Newmark Philanthropies donates $350,000 to fund new research

Today, New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics (CSMaP), with the support of a $350,000 gift from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, is excited to launch our new, multilingual research infrastructure to monitor how the spread of disinformation across social media platforms will impact the upcoming U.S. elections.

Over the last several years, social media and networked communication have presented new and significant challenges in our elections — not only for voters searching for accurate information, but also for officials working to administer and secure the electoral process amidst a backdrop of disinformation. As we look toward the upcoming elections, we are also experiencing a structural change to our digital information environment: A world once dominated by two text-based platforms (Facebook and Twitter) is giving way to a diverse ecosystem in which information moves across multiple platforms via text, images, and video.

Our ability to respond to these new democratic challenges will depend, in large part, on whether our research tools and infrastructure can adapt to the dynamics of this ever-changing digital media environment. However, one of the major obstacles to understanding the nature and causes of our democratic crisis is gaining a comprehensive view of the information that all Americans consume. The limitations of what we know are especially stark when observing the preponderance of research that focuses on Facebook and Twitter, while having little to say about popular platforms such as YouTube and TikTok, as well as fringe platforms (Parler, Rumble) that have been associated with hate speech and radicalization.

In addition, scholarly and journalistic work in the U.S. has largely focused on English-language media, despite 45 million Spanish speakers living in America. We look to build on recent work from scholars and advocacy groups by providing robust insights into how our multifaceted and multilingual online information environment can leave people misinformed — insights that could inform public policy aimed at safeguarding our elections.

This research gap presents us with both a crisis and an opportunity — a crisis in how little we know about the vast online environment that leaves populations acutely vulnerable to disinformation, and an opportunity in that new research can shed light on these dynamics and, in turn, support evidence-based interventions and policies.

CSMaP’s new multilingual research infrastructure seeks to bridge this gap.

Through innovative data collection techniques that pair comprehensive, multi-platform digital trace data with national surveys in both English and Spanish, the project will provide a systematic view into the information Americans consume — both offline and on — and how their beliefs and behaviors change over time.

With this information, CSMaP scholars will produce peer-reviewed research and quantitative descriptive reports examining several key questions, including which communities are targeted most by disinformation and on what platforms, how these dynamics are shifting as the online ecosystem changes, and what impact disinformation has on voters’ beliefs and behaviors. Beyond disinformation and elections, our flexible research design will also enable us to measure the impact of media diets on a variety of issue and policy areas, from Covid-19 to social justice.

We are incredibly grateful to Craig Newmark for his generous donation helping us launch this project, which will run through the 2022 midterms. We will be seeking additional funding to support the project through 2024. Newmark’s ongoing support — including $929,000 to help launch CSMaP in 2019 and $400,000 to support graduate student research in 2020 — has been vital to our work examining how social media impacts politics, policy, and democracy.

This project is also one of several Newmark has supported looking at the intersection of electoral politics and online information ecosystems. For example, The Markup and the Center for an Informed Public collect data enabling rapid-response work aimed at being ‘on the front lines’ of combatting disinformation. Our goal is to complement this work by using comprehensive research infrastructure to provide critical understanding of the online information ecosystem that fellow organizations can use to inform their valuable work.

We don’t know what the future will bring, nor where new assaults on our democracy will come from. We are thrilled to launch this project and help provide new research to better understand those threats and how to safeguard our elections.