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Tech & Public Policy

Tech & Public Policy program awards $2M in research funding

The McCourt School’s Tech & Public Policy program is pleased to announce the recipients of the 2023-2024 Tech & Public Policy grants, totaling nearly million in research funding.

In partnership with Project Liberty’s Institute (formerly The McCourt Institute), the McCourt School’s Tech & Public Policy (TPP) grant program supports technologists, ethicists, legal scholars and social scientists working in collaboration to explore and articulate novel uses and misuses of technology. The 2023-2024 grantees will investigate the effects of technology on individuals and society, as well as how to address the challenge of new technologies born in the information age. 

Find out more about each of the grantees below:

Leticia Bode, Communication, Culture and Technology, Georgetown University; Emily Vraga, University of Minnesota

Georgetown University Distinguished Associate Professor Leticia Bode and University of Minnesota Associate Professor Emily Vraga’s research focuses on misinformation on social media and the effectiveness of peer correction. Their proposal, titled “Building a Realistic Research Platform for Open Science,” seeks to address the “crazy uncle problem,” where one loud voice with the wrong information influences several others. The work will focus on the audience that witnesses a correction on social media and how observing those corrections can impact truth-seeking behaviors.  

The TPP grant will help Bode and Vraga create a state-of-the-art research platform, which will be available to researchers around the world. The platform will imitate the popular social media platform Reddit and will be customizable by researchers who wish to change various design elements and attributes of the platform to make it look different to specific users. The data generated by users interacting with the platform (e.g.,what they click on, like, share, etc.) will then be analyzable. 

Thus far, Bode and Vraga’s work in this area has been mainly experimental and has taken place in static, somewhat artificial social media imitations. The TPP grant will enable them to do this research in a more realistic platform which will lead to more confidence in the results and more impactful work in the future. 

Jonathan Ladd, McCourt School of Public Policy, Georgetown University; Kevin Arceneaux and Martial Foucault, Centre for Political Research, Sciences Po Paris

In their research project titled “The Effects of Social Media on Overall Media Use, Misinformation Acceptance, Happiness and Social Connectedness During a Presidential Campaign,” McCourt School Associate Professor Jonathan Ladd and Sciences Po Professors Kevin Arceneaux and Martial Foucault study the effects of social media on people’s personal happiness, social well-being and political opinions. In prior work, Ladd, Arceneaux and Foucault have investigated the effects of newspaper bias, television advertising and cable news channels on public opinion. They have become increasingly interested in the political effects of social media use, given that it has become such a widely used platform to consume media.

In 2022, the same team received a grant from Project Liberty’s Institute to run a field experiment during the 2022 French presidential election. In that study, they paid individuals to deactivate their Facebook accounts during the entire presidential campaign and found that people who stopped using Facebook reported being happier but less informed about major news stories during the four week period. Interestingly, there was no effect on their belief in false news stories.

Thanks to generous funding from the TPP grant, Ladd, Arceneaux and Foucault can conduct a field experiment on Facebook deactivation during the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign. In 2024, the group plans to partner with a national survey research firm to find a national sample of Facebook users who say that they are willing to deactivate their Facebook accounts for 4 weeks in exchange for payment. The team will survey the treatment and control groups on their political views and a variety of other attributes and behaviors at the beginning and the end of the study.

Due to the high costs of entry, there have been very few field experiments testing the effects of social media use since it rose to its current prevalence.  With the TPP grant, Ladd, Arceneaux and Foucault have the opportunity to make a big impact on the way policymakers think about social media moving forward.

Tiago Ventura, McCourt School of Public Policy, Georgetown University; Joshua Tucker, New York University

McCourt School Assistant Professor Tiago Ventura and his colleague Joshua Tucker at NYU will focus on the causal effect of exposure to misinformation on WhatsApp on beliefs and political attitudes. Their research project, titled “The Effects of WhatsApp on Politics: A Multi-Country Deactivation Experiment,” will randomly assign users to a multimedia deactivation of WhatsApp, in which participants turn off their automatic download of any multimedia — image, video or audio — on WhatsApp and are incentivized not to access any multimedia content during the weeks leading up to elections across four different countries. The design is motivated by findings from prior research demonstrating that videos and images are the primary formats by which misinformation spreads on WhatsApp in a number of Global South countries. 

For years, WhatsApp has been the primary social media application in many countries in the Global South, and numerous journalistic and scholarly accounts suggest that the platform has become a fertile ground for spreading misinformation and partisan content. However, no studies to date have been able to show causal links between WhatsApp usage and these alleged changes in citizens’ attitudes and beliefs on misinformation.  The absence of robust scholarly evidence about the effects of WhatsApp, and particularly exposure to misinformation on WhatsApp on political attitudes, is the primary driver for this project.

Ventura and Tucker hope that this project will have meaningful relevance for technology development and public policy. Stakeholders across the technology and policy ecosystem are developing regulatory approaches and interventions to mitigate the harms — and amplify the benefits — of social media. Ventura and Tucker hope to use their causal findings to inform this work at a global scale, but with particular attention to the Global South. 

The TPP grant will support the project in two primary ways. First, by providing financial support for conducting a multi-country study and second, by providing the team with a common and collaborative space at Georgetown University to receive feedback and build collaborations.

Paul Ohm, Julie Cohen, Meg Leta Jones, Georgetown University Law Center

In their research project titled “Redesigning the Governance Stack: New Institutional Approaches to Information Economy Harms,” Georgetown University Law Center Professors Paul Ohm, Julie Cohen and Meg Leta Jones seek to draft a completely new blueprint for an effective approach to public oversight of firms operating in the information economy. The team hopes to design the administrative structures, cultures and expertise necessary to shape the information economy in furtherance of the common good.  

Ohm, Cohen and Jones share a technology law background and found themselves growing frustrated by the wide ranging harms and power dynamics inherent in the current relationship between technology and law. Their hope is that their blueprint will be used as a model for new legislation and regulation in the area of technology governance, inspiring new forms of oversight and a new generation of talented technology policy professionals.

Funding from the TPP grant will support the groups innovative methods, which include drafting portions of the blueprint, then intensely workshopping the design with interdisciplinary peers, civil society and regulators. 

Laura Donohue, Anna Cave, Jenny Reich, Georgetown University Law Center on National Security

Georgetown Professor Laura K. Donohue and her colleague Jenny Reich coined the term biomanipulation to describe the ability of private and state actors to collect, surveil, predict and alter human behavior using biometric and other biological data produced by human bodies.

Donohue and Reich, joined by Georgetown University Law Center on National Security Executive Director Anna Cave, will build on their research with their proposal, titled “Biomanipulation: The Looming Threat of the Social Media Frontier.” This work draws upon interdisciplinary methods like traditional legal research, design thinking and deliberative democratic political theory, bringing together diverse groups of stakeholders from across society to understand the full implications of biomanipulation for civil rights, national security and the future of the internet.

The goal of this work is to foster a new public dialogue around biomanipulation and the future of social media and the internet. As part of their external engagement, the team is developing an AR/VR experience that will significantly deepen the understanding of those who go through the exhibit, helping them conceive of what opportunities and vulnerabilities could exist in the future. Following this exhibition, Donohue, Cave and Reich hope to build out an ecosystem of policy working groups, industry events, scholarship and related academic infrastructure to increase understanding of this threat as well as catalyze appropriate responses in this pressing new field.

The TPP grant will support the groups initial academic research and stakeholder outreach efforts as they seek to thoroughly analyze the threat of biomanipulation. The grant will also support their initial pilot efforts to develop “Biomanipulation: The Looming Threat.” 

Rebecca Johnson, McCourt School of Public Policy, Georgetown University

Media coverage of local policymaking depicts a polarized landscape, but researchers and advocates trying to understand local governments face a major hurdle: a lack of systematic data about on-the-ground deliberations in local governments. McCourt School Assistant Professor Rebecca Johnson’s research, titled “Using Large-Scale Video, Text and Legacy/Social Media Data to Understand and Reduce Polarization in Local Governance,” leverages advances in computing to create a systematic database of school board meeting deliberations, exploring coverage rates across the universe of U.S. districts, automated text analysis to summarize meaningful themes in the deliberations, and the role of the national news media in agenda setting surrounding these themes.

Prior to receiving her TPP grant, Professor Johnson worked with the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation to study how school districts were deciding which students needed help most urgently following the COVID-19 pandemic. In a survey experiment with Professor Simone Zhang, Johnson found an unexpected degree of political polarization over the rights that parents should have to shape schools’ judgments of need and began to question how these deliberations were playing out in school boards — and whether these boards were even discussing post-pandemic student supports, or were more focused on the issues we hear about in the news like book bans and critical race theory. Meanwhile, Tyler Simko and Soubhik Barari and Harvard University had proven the feasibility of collecting local government deliberations via Youtube videos and created a database called LocalView. Thus, a partnership was formed. 

The research team has set forth three goals. First, they have created the code to do a one-time pull of district meeting transcripts at a certain point in time; they hope to create a more dynamic database that continually updates as new videos are posted on a given district’s channel so that the data can be useful for education policy discussions as they emerge. Second, the team hopes to link what’s happening on the ground in school board meetings with an understanding of the media’s role in selectively highlighting or amplifying certain issues. Third, in line with the grant’s focus on action-oriented research, in fall of 2024, the team will host a convening to disseminate the data and brainstorm concrete policy applications with researchers and civil society actors engaged with these issues.

Outside of funding, the TPP grant offers this team the chance to engage with the broader community studying and working to improve the relationship between technology and public policy.

Other grantees include:

Evan Barba, Communication, Culture and Technology, Cassandra Ramdath, Center for Innovations in Community Safety, Georgetown University

Pamela Herd, Sebastian Jilke, Don Moynihan, McCourt School of Public Policy, Georgetown University

Tech & Public Policy