Updated digital policies are necessary to protect individuals from harm and ensure a healthy democracy. But their success hinges on the strength of the evidence that informs them.
That’s where NYU’s Center for Social Media and Politics excels.
We start with research. CSMaP uses large scale data collection, rigorous data science methods, and innovative research designs to interrogate some of the most deeply held assumptions about social media's impact on democracy — so the political conversation can be driven by facts, not fiction.
We then share that research with leaders shaping technology policy today. CSMaP engages directly with the policymakers, civil society groups, industry professionals, and journalists working to tackle these problems and strengthen democracy in the digital age.
In Congress, lawmakers have considered an array of proposals governing content moderation, algorithmic design, and online safety. In Europe, the Digital Services Act aims to crack down on illegal content and improve transparency. CSMaP experts routinely engage with American and international policymakers and their staff to inform debate on potential regulation.
Social media companies constantly test new ways to improve their products and increase engagement. But competing incentives often make it hard to do that while still serving the public good. Through direct relationships with platforms, CSMaP shares research to inform company efforts to improve the safety of users and the quality of the information environment to which they are exposed.
Civil society plays a critical role in holding big tech firms accountable, working to mitigate the harmful effects of the internet through fact-checking, advocacy, and public awareness campaigns. But their work needs to be informed by rigorous studies of efficacy. CSMaP works closely with civil society groups, sharing important research to inform and support their public education efforts.
Conventional wisdom on technology’s impact on democracy is often shaped by flawed assumptions and folk theories. CSMaP’s cutting-edge data collection and research cuts through the noise. Our experts add scientific rigor to media coverage and inform public discourse about democracy in the digital age.
From Research to Impact
Here are four examples of CSMaP research driving public policy and impact:
Online Digital Literacy
Better online and media literacy is often considered a solution to misinformation. CSMaP research has helped rigorously evaluate the efficacy of several approaches. For example, experts often encourage us to Google questionable information when we encounter it online. However, our research demonstrates this could actually exacerbate the problem. We found that users who search online for additional information about false news stories end up more likely to believe them. In addition, although our analysis found NewsGuard’s source credibility labels made little difference for most people, we found it could help improve the news diet quality of the heaviest consumers of misinformation.
After years of stories about Russia’s attempt to interfere in 2016, CSMaP research led to renewed media coverage highlighting how Russia’s social media campaigns didn’t “hack” the election. In two studies investigating Russia’s influence operations on Twitter, we found that, while Russian Twitter trolls sought to sow discord and support Donald Trump, direct exposure to tweets from Russian accounts was not related to changes in attitudes or voting behavior. This research provides an important corrective to the view that foreign influence campaigns can easily manipulate Americans, which analysts should keep in mind when assessing future efforts.
Many commentators have claimed that sharing fake news is a widespread phenomenon, and that young people are to blame. CSMaP research proved the opposite. In fact, in our study we found less than 10 percent of Americans shared fake news links on Facebook during the 2016 election, and the behavior was disproportionately more likely by people over the age of 65. These findings provide critical context for experts working to combat the effects of misinformation in our society.
Access to data is critical to understanding the impact of social media on society — and informing policy on how best to regulate it. CSMaP helped move data access for academic researchers to the center of the public debate about social media regulation, testifying before Congress, working directly with House and Senate leaders crafting bills mandating access, and meeting with officials from the European Union and international governments weighing new regulations. We also helped lead an open letter, joined by more than 600 organizations and individuals, urging Twitter to ensure its API remains easily accessible for research, and calling on policymakers to act to protect this vital infrastructure.