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Social Media and Democracy: Assessing the State of the Field and Identifying Unexplored Questions



Nate Persily, James B. McClatchy, Professor of Law
Diane Mutz, Samuel A. Stouffer Professor of Political Science and Communication, University of Pennsylvania

Date and Time

April 19, 2018 8:00 AM - April 20, 2018 1:30 PM



RSVP required by 5PM April 18.


Fisher Conference Center Frances C. Arillaga Alumni Center  Stanford University

Organized by the Media & Democracy program at the Social Science Research Council, in collaboration with the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. 

The 2016 American elections intensified popular as well as scholarly interest in the relationship between media and democracy. The role of social media has featured particularly prominently in debates over fake news, information bubbles, and algorithmic propaganda. Increased scholarly interest is manifested in the numerous conferences that have been held over the last year or so, jointly exploring technological changes in the media, social interactions online, and their relationship to the quality of our democracy.  
Social Media and Democracy: Assessing the State of the Field and Identifying Unexplored Questions will convene researchers to take stock and look ahead. In a format of brief remarks and panel discussions, we seek to assess the current literature on social media and democracy together, and to set a research agenda for the field moving forward.  
Format: Each panelist will be asked to speak for up to ten minutes. In lieu of preparing traditional research presentations, we encourage attendees to reflect on the field as a whole, and ask themselves where they would like to see scholars go next. After hearing prepared remarks from panelists, each panel will have allotted time for a discussion with audience participation.
Panel-specific prompts are included below, geared toward key connecting themes: What gaps exist in current research? What studies would we like to see that do not exist right now? What do we not yet know about the impact of social media on democracy? What partnerships are needed to pursue research that can answer these questions?

Thursday, April 19   8:30-9:00am             Registration and Breakfast

             Opening Remarks: Diana Mutz and Nate Persily  Overview of the Literature on Misinformation: Josh Tucker     
9:30-11:00am           Inflammatory Speech and Incivility Online
Panelists: Susan Benesch Bryan Gervais Diana Mutz Monica Stephens
Is social media a medium on which inflammatory speech and uncivil discourse are particularly prevalent? Online incivility may take a range of expressions, from unusually aggressive statements of individual political views to coordinated campaigns of harassment and intimidation. The targets may include out-partisans, professionals such as journalists, politicians, or government employees, and minority or underrepresented groups such as women and ethnic/religious minorities.
What, if anything, is different about inflammatory speech in the social media environment? What do we not yet understand about the origins, spread, and consequences of inflammatory speech online? Should we distinguish between different forms of incivility (e.g. direct threats vs. slurs, individual vs. coordinated harassment)? To what extent is online incivility related to real world actions (including, but not limited to, real world violence)?  
      Coffee Break   
11:30am-1:00pm  Distribution and Effects of Fake News
Panelists: Renee DiResta Kelly Garrett David Rand Josh Tucker
The distribution of false information - intentional and unintentional - through social media has  become a significant source of anxiety in the media, politics, and public discourse. Exposure to false information can lead to mistaken impressions about the world, and may also deepen partisan divisions.  
What do we need to learn about how misinformation spreads online? We already have some research that quantifies exposure to misinformation online; what do we need to learn next about the effects of such exposure (on the individual level and in the aggregate)? Has the spread of social media raised new, unanswered questions about how people process information and classify it as true or false?  
1:00-2:00pm       Lunch   2:00-3:30pm            Correcting Disinformation
Panelists: Jonathan Albright Matthew Baum Adam J. Berinsky Matthew Gentzkow Emily Thorson
Once a person has been exposed to, and accepted as true, an inaccurate piece of information, how can the information be successfully corrected? What do we need to understand next about the possibilities and pitfalls for correcting misinformation?  
Do we have reason to suspect that social media changes the difficulty of correcting misperceptions? What do we not yet know about how corrections of factual information lead to changes in political attitudes or behavior? If we want to correct false beliefs, what do we need to learn about who should go about making corrections, and how?   
Friday, April 20th   8:30-9:00am  Breakfast
Homophily in the Social Media Sphere
Panelists: Damon Centola Annie Franco Shanto Iyengar Jaime Settle
Concern about online political discourse taking place in self-selected or algorithmically supported “information bubbles” is common, though there are differing views on how serious this problem is.  
Do we know whether social media is exceptional in enabling or limiting exposure to politically heterogeneous information? How do algorithms affect how much political content users see and/or the kind of political content to which they are exposed? What do we not yet understand about the frequency and consequences of political homophily on social media, as distinct from other types of media? What study would you like to see next on the prevalence and consequences of homogeneous political information? 

10:30-10:45am         Coffee Break   10:45am-12:15pm Globalization of the Marketplace of Ideas
Panelists: Nina Jankowicz Linda Kinstler Jennifer Pan

The use of social media for political ends is not limited to the United States, nor to traditional state actors. Narratives about politics are circulated online to influence domestic audiences, to drive political perceptions abroad, and to organize as well as suppress citizen unrest.
What do we need to learn next about the effectiveness of using social media to push the political interests of state- or non-state actors? What do we not yet understand about the dynamics at play when nation-states get involved in one another’s media ecosystems? How is this any different from when they previously did so using other media? What can we learn from studying the intersection of media and democracy in comparative perspective?
12:15-1:30pm Concluding Discussion Over Lunch (to-go available per request