Project Liberty Foundation and Georgetown Grantees Showcase Innovative Research on Building Public Trust through Responsible Technology

9 January 2024

Project Liberty Foundation is working to connect with and drive rigorous academic research to inform policy-making and public opinion

By Kulani Abendroth-Dias, Michelle De Mooy, and Jeb Bell

Accountability and Innovation: A Pathway to Responsible Technology

Are you more likely to vote a specific way based on information you’ve consumed on WhatsApp? What if you receive the information in a video?

How can we scale virtual reality training for police on spotting the signs of misconduct and bias in their partners, a method that has shown a reduction in misconduct?

Can we use technology and principles from tech companies - like agility and user-centered design - to ease bureaucratic headaches for everyday people? Could doing so actually improve economic outcomes for people as well as their trust in government?

These are just some of the questions that scholars at Georgetown University are exploring as grantees of the Tech & Public Policy (TPP) program at Georgetown's McCourt School of Public Policy, a grant program supported by the Project Liberty Foundation.

Led by Michelle De Mooy, Director of TPP and Maria Cancian, Dean of the McCourt School of Public Policy, grantees presented and discussed their ongoing research progress with Project Liberty’s Jeb Bell, Head of Strategic Insights and Director of the Project Liberty Institute and Kulani Abendroth-Dias, Research and Governance Program Manager at Project Liberty Institute.

Eight grantees presented research investigating topics that included: polarization in school board meetings and other local, state-level governance fora in the United States; the effects of turning off some forms of social media in the run-up to an election; and the potential future uses of personal data collected by tech companies for influencing behavior in immersive environments such as in the metaverse and other augmented reality simulations. Each presentation was followed by a substantive round of questions to facilitate collaboration across Georgetown Schools, grantees, and Project Liberty academic partners, including Stanford University, Sciences Po, Harvard University, and MIT.

Despite projects being awarded funding in 2022 and 2023, researchers were already able to share several emerging outcomes and potential impacts of their work.

Professor Tiago Ventura, who is running a multi-country study on the effects of WhatsApp on political beliefs, found a link between the reduction of social media usage with an increase in time spent watching television. His research also supports a line of evidence that demonstrates no significant effects of the general spread of misinformation via social media on voting behavior. In other words, people tend to consume information that aligns with their previously-held attitudes and beliefs and reject information that contradicts them. Put simply, most people will vote the way they had planned to, regardless of being bombarded with misinformation from miscellaneous sources.

Questions remain, however, on whether the type of person who shares that mis/information (e.g. someone popular, or respected within a community), the channel used (WhatsApp versus Facebook or TikTok, for example, and if a majority of people quoting specific types of misinformation (influencing norms) would shift voting behavior.

In 2024, Professor Ventura will launch studies to investigate the effects of WhatsApp on politics in Mexico, India, and South Africa.

Professor Jonathan Ladd and his co-authors at Sciences Po, Professors Kevin Arceneaux, Martial Foucault, Kalli Giannelosa, and Can Zengina, have similarly found little evidence that Facebook use affects social or political polarization on average.

However, the researchers note that Facebook use may be responsible for increasing partisan polarization among college-educated individuals.

Ladd and colleagues have also found that prompts warning people about the dangers of misinformation, in combination with digital literacy tips, have limited effects on political knowledge and practically no effects on subjective well-being and polarization.

According to their research, and in line with previous studies on the subject, Facebook use can reduce subjective well-being.

Ladd and team plan to continue pursuing this line of research in 2024. Click here to read more about this work.

Is U.S. local governance experiencing a crisis of polarization? Topics that children study at school can inform their attitudes for years to come. Professor Rebecca Johnson and her team are studying patterns in the debate of critical race theory (CRT) in U.S. school board discussions, such as the spikes in anti-CRT backlash that followed the George Floyd protests. Johnson’s team is also asking which topics might be “crowded out” by emergent discussions of CRT in school boards meetings. Johnson’s research leverages YouTube data to shine a spotlight on potential inequalities in local meetings, as well as illustrating how social media and legacy media such as CNN and Fox News may perpetuate “false polarization” through selected depictions of high-contention meetings.

These scholars are building an evidence base to help us understand social media’s effects on society and potential pathways toward technology for public good. The data they produce may help better inform policies and discourse around ways to mitigate negative effects of social media in order to create a better web for a better world.

Click here to see a list of research supported by Project Liberty Foundation.

Stay tuned for updates on this work and more from Project Liberty’s academic partners Georgetown University, Sciences Po, Stanford, Harvard, and MIT via a blogpost series in 2024.

Project Liberty’s academic grantees were awarded funding to support research that develops evidence towards building technology for the common good. Learn more about our work to build ethical principles for responsible technology in support of our goal to build a better web for a better world here.

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