Tag Archives: Knight Foundation

More Of This…

I don’t know about all of you, but I get positively desperate for good news. The American political landscape is so bleak–every day, it seems there is a new report of really egregious wrongdoing: trashing the environment, screwing over students and public education, kicking hungry children off food stamps,  the President’s corruption and conflicts of interest…the list is endless, and it’s all aided and abetted by the propaganda that litters the Internet.

As we head into 2020, the effectiveness of that propaganda has been enhanced by “deep fakes”–doctored photographs that look so real the distortions are difficult to detect.

Rather than sighing and wondering how effective this new method of disinformation will prove to be, Governing Magazine reports that a couple of universities are doing something about it.

If you were under any illusion that online hooey peaked with the 2016 election, brace yourself for the era of “deepfakes” — fabricated videos so realistic they can put words in the mouths of politicians or anyone else that they never said.

As the 2020 election approaches, a new University of Washington initiative aims to combat the wave of increasingly sophisticated digital counterfeiting and misinformation coursing through social media and give the public tools to sort fact from fakery.

The Center for an Informed Public (CIP) has been seeded with $5 million from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, part of a $50 million round of grants awarded this year to 11 U.S. universities and research institutions to study how technology is transforming democracy.

The mission is to use the new research to help everyone vulnerable to being fooled by online manipulation — whether it’s schoolkids unsure about which news sites are trustworthy or baby boomers uncritically sharing fraudulent news stories on Facebook.

Kate Starbird is a UW associate professor and one of the CIP’s principal researchers. She has spent years studying the spread of conspiracy theories and deliberate misinformation in the wake of crisis events like school shootings and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and she says this is “not a K-12 problem. It’s a K-99 problem.”

Starbird and other researchers have examined millions of tweets and discovered how various actors, including foreign intelligence operatives, have worked to intensify political divisions in America.

In 2016, for example, Twitter accounts associated with Russia’s Internet Research Agency impersonated activists supportive and critical of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Tweets from those accounts became some of the most widely shared. “Russian agents did not create political division in the United States, but they were working to encourage it,” Starbird recounted in a Medium post about the research.

Fighting the bots and trolls and pervasive propaganda is essential–but it won’t be easy.

The CIP grew in part out of the UW’s popular course, “Calling BS in the Age of Big Data,” created two years ago by West and biology professor Carl Bergstrom. The course is in such demand that its 160 seats filled within one minute of registration opening this quarter, West said.

Sam Gill, who leads community and national initiatives for the Knight Foundation, said he sees the new UW center as “sort of like the first public health school in the country for the Internet.”

The link between quality information and public health is not merely metaphorical, as Internet-fueled misconceptions about vaccines have contributed to outbreaks of measles and other diseases once thought eradicated. An ongoing measles outbreak in Samoa has killed 50 children.

Similarly, misinformation has made it harder for the U.S. to combat climate change, which scientists predict will wreak havoc in the coming decades unless big cuts are made in greenhouse-gas emissions. Emma Spiro, an assistant professor in the Information School and another CIP researcher, said there is already talk of collaboration with the UW’s EarthLab research institute to address climate knowledge.

I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that there is a war being fought between fact and deliberate fiction. We need new weapons in order to win that war.

I hope this very promising effort to create those weapons will be joined by many others.

 

This Is Very Good News

It’s hard these days not to focus on what’s stupid, corrupt and/or depressing. In fact, I find it hard to avoid news that gives me heartburn.

Nevertheless, there are also nuggets of hopefulness available, as I was reminded when I came across this announcement from the Knight Foundation.

MIAMI—Feb. 19, 2019—The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation today announced that it would double its investment in strengthening journalism to $300 million over five years, with a focus on building the future of local news and information, which are essential for democracy to function.

Knight called on individual and institutional funders to join in this opportunity to rebuild trust and foster sustainability in journalism, an essential democratic institution, starting on the local level.

Knight’s initial investments are in scalable organizations committed to serving communities at the local level — all of which are seeking additional support. These organizations are building new business models, strengthening investigative reporting, protecting press freedom, promoting news literacy, and connecting with audiences through civic engagement and technology.

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with–and probably tired of–my frequent complaints about the demise of local journalism (just this week, we learned that Indianapolis’ alternative newspaper is also ceasing publication), and the negative effects that the void of local coverage has had on local government.

The causes and consequences of the collapse are not a mystery; and the Knight announcement spelled them out.

Newsrooms across the nation have been decimated by the collapse of traditional business models brought on by the impact of digital technology and social media, which have drawn readers and advertisers to other information sources on the internet. As a result, many communities have turned into news deserts, with little or no local reporting.

“Without revenue, you can’t pay reporters. Without reporters, you can’t develop consistently reliable news reports about what’s happening in your town. Without that reliable news report, you can’t figure out how to run local government. It isn’t rocket science,” said Alberto Ibargüen, Knight Foundation president. “We’re not funding one-offs. We’re helping to rebuild a local news ecosystem, reliable and sustainable, and we’re doing it in a way that anyone who cares can participate.”

The Knight Foundation was created and funded by a once-vibrant news organization, and this initiative will seek new ways–collaborative, digital, and local–to reinvigorate journalism at the community level. The grants will support several national organizations that serve as important resources for local efforts, including the American Journalism Project, Pro-Publica, Report for America and FrontlinePBS; it will also provide resources for defense of the First Amendment, tripling the number of lawyers working on local First Amendment issues and expanding the network of local attorneys available to provide pro bono legal support.

Equally important–and welcome–is the funding allocated to important efforts to bolster what we now call “news literacy,” the battle against disinformation and propaganda.

And finally,

Knight is investing an additional $35 million in research to support the creation and expansion of research centers around the United States. This research will study the changing nature of an informed society in America and will help build an emerging field of study to address pressing questions about the health of an informed society and citizenry in the digital age.

Citizens can only act on the basis of what they know. An absence of credible information–or worse, its displacement by dishonest or manufactured information–makes democratic self-government impossible.

Democratic participation requires accurate and complete information.  I can think of very few initiatives more important than this one.