Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society to launch a three-year multidisciplinary Institute to “reboot social media”
Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society (BKC) is launching an ambitious three-year “pop-up” research initiative, the Institute for Rebooting Social Media. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Craig Newmark Philanthropies have committed generous donations to support the new initiative, which will convene practitioners, policymakers, scholars, and students to improve the future of social media and online communication.
The Institute will be led by two BKC faculty directors: Professor Jonathan Zittrain, George Bemis Professor of International Law and Professor of Computer Science at Harvard University, and James Mickens, Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science at Harvard University.
There’s an emerging consensus that social media -- to the extent there’s even agreement on what it is -- is broken, on a global scale, even as the reasons offered vary greatly. Some of the concerns: Platforms initially perceived as engines for democracy and truth-telling appear to have instead facilitated the spread and acceptance of lies, division, and physical harm. Confidence in institutions, elections, and collective truth has demonstrably decayed, while racial, ethnic, political, religious, and gender-based animosities have grown. Digital platforms’ design and policy decisions have permitted and even, by their own accounts, at times encouraged this state of affairs, and the actions of a handful of private entities can influence the shape of public communication in unprecedented ways.
Still, social media, and the online environment generally, offer unprecedented access to knowledge, have forged valuable and often self-governed communities, and have cultivated flourishing cultural movements. Preserving and strengthening the benefits of online communication, while minimizing the various harms, is a key challenge of our era.
There is no power button to reboot social media. Solutions are not obvious. But our online world -- the Internet’s architecture, the platforms built on it, and the way these platforms are used -- was not inevitable. It can be and is being continually redesigned. There is so much impressive, ongoing work to improve the state of social media; and there are great ideas yet to be forged. The aim of our new (and, by design, ephemeral) Institute is to help generate, identify, elevate, and connect work across disciplines and sectors, and see how efforts in one sector or mode -- say, technical -- might mesh with efforts elsewhere -- such as in the legal and policy realm.
The Institute is spinning up in conversation with and learning from a number of peer institutions, including the Aspen Institute Commission on Information Disorder, New_ Public, the Public Interest Tech Lab at Harvard University, the Technology and Social Change Project at the Shorenstein Center, the School of Social Sciences and Technology at the Technical University of Munich, UMass Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure, and the Global Network of Internet and Society Research Centers.
By bringing participants together across industry, government, civil society, and academia in focused, time-bound collaboration, the Institute will build a portfolio of research, projects, programming, and educational opportunities to improve the state of the digital social space. The Institute aims to better articulate the harms and opportunities of networked communication; test under-discussed ideas and develop new ones; prototype tools and protocols, whether in technical terms or as new institutions or institutional relationships; develop policies enriched by attention to sociotechnical issues; and encourage accurate and accessible narratives about social media. Participants will address a wide range of some of today’s thorniest topics and questions related to social media, including those related to mis- and disinformation, privacy, harassment, and content governance.
Knight Foundation’s $2 million investment in the Institute for Rebooting Social Media builds on its broader $50 million commitment to advance independent research of issues, including online content moderation, mis- and disinformation online, freedom of expression across digital platforms, and liability for content posted online.
“Solutions to the digital information challenges facing our democracy will only come through an informed and inclusive public debate,” said John Sands, Knight’s director of Learning and Impact. “Knight seeks to elevate that debate with a range of independent voices that can serve the public interest. We are confident that the Berkman Klein Center’s Institute for Rebooting Social Media will be an important venue for the emergence and incubation of new approaches and practical interventions.”
“In the US, the country has been destabilized by those who wish us harm, largely through broken social media,” said Craig Newmark, Founder of craigslist and Craig Newmark Philanthropies. “The stakes are critical. BKC’s Rebooting Social Media effort to repair social media meets the urgency of our times and will help realize the dream of a stronger society.”
“Online services are like hydras—if you fix one problem, another one often emerges. Part of the challenge is that many of the problems are multifaceted. They’re not just engineering problems, and they’re not just regulatory issues, and they can’t be solved merely by leveraging insights from social science,” said Mickens. “I’m excited to help the Institute tackle these challenges in a way that is multidisciplinary, and incorporates academic research, but is guided by a desire to make practical, real-world impact.”
The Institute will build on the ideas, models, and networks developed during BKC’s Assembly program, itself generously funded by the Knight Foundation and Craig Newmark Philanthropies. Through Assembly, more than one hundred and fifty students, fellows, and experts offered paths forward on disinformation, the ethics and governance of artificial intelligence, and privacy and security online. Assembly’s five-year run was organized in focused short sprints, with the goal of making meaningful progress within respective time constraints. Assembly Fellows developed a number of ongoing, independent projects currently being deployed across sectors, including: Clean Insights, a secure, private measurement platform for app usage patterns answers key questions without enabling invasive surveillance; Data Nutrition Project, which creates tools and practices that encourage responsible AI development, including data nutrition labels; and Disinfodex, a database of publicly available information about disinformation campaigns taken down by major online platforms. Building on this model, the Institute’s three-year timeline is similarly aimed at creating gradual, impactful, and actionable change, both in the immediate and longer term.
This fall, to kick off the Institute’s initial educational offerings, Professor Zittrain and Deb Roy, Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT and Director of the Center for Constructive Communication, will be teaching a course on Design for Democratic Discourse, offered jointly between Harvard and MIT. Participating students will explore how design influences how, by whom, and to what effect technology is used through the lenses of law, technology, and design.
“There’s so much imaginative and thoughtful work going on to better describe how social media is affecting people individually and collectively,” said Zittrain. “But it’s often difficult for that work to be informed by perspectives and data solely in the hands of the major social media platforms, and in turn for that work to be considered by them. Whether people are thinking about refinements or wholesale changes to existing services, or about the creation of entirely new ones, we hope to provide a space and a method for those involved to exchange ideas and challenge them, and for the public’s interest in the evolution of social media -- given its impact on how we perceive the world and each other -- to be aptly represented.”
Engage with the Institute:
- We’re hiring for an Institute Director to lead and shape the “pop-up” Institute, in collaboration with the faculty directors. Learn more about the role here.
- As we build the pop-up Institute, we’d love your help in surfacing interesting work in the field. Please share recommendations with us here.
- To learn more about the Institute for Rebooting Social Media’s strategic vision, its soft launch in fall 2021, and its full launch in the spring semester of 2022, sign up to receive email updates here and follow the Berkman Klein Center on social media. Over the coming months, we will be sharing more on fellowship and job opportunities, public engagements, events, and emerging research.
About the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society
The Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University is dedicated to exploring, understanding, and shaping the development of the digitally-networked environment. A diverse, interdisciplinary community of scholars, practitioners, technologists, policy experts, and advocates, we seek to tackle the most important challenges of the digital age while keeping a focus on tangible real-world impact in the public interest. Our faculty, fellows, staff, and affiliates conduct research, build tools and platforms, educate others, form bridges, and facilitate dialogue across and among diverse communities. More information at www.cyber.harvard.edu.
About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Knight Foundation supports democracy in America by fostering informed and engaged communities. The foundation invests in journalism, arts and culture in community, research in areas of media and democracy, and in the success of cities and towns where John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. For more, visit kf.org.
About Craig Newmark Philanthropies
Craig Newmark Philanthropies was created by craigslist founder Craig Newmark to support and connect people and drive broad civic engagement. It works to advance grassroots organizations that are getting stuff done in areas that include trustworthy journalism & the information ecosystem, voter protection, gender diversity in technology, and veterans & military families. For more information, please visit: CraigNewmarkPhilanthropies.org
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