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University of Michigan School of Information


Knight Foundation announces funding for University of Michigan project to support research on internet governance

Monday, 06/29/2020

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation today announced a $25,000 investment to support a project from The University of Michigan for research on the expansion of Section 230 in the Communications Decency Act to include a responsibility for digital platforms to reduce harms such as hate speech, harassment and discrimination, especially for marginalized populations.

Sarita Schoenebeck, an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Information and Lisa Nakamura, professor at the University of Michigan School of Literature, Science and the Arts are the principal investigators. 

Most content moderation approaches rely on criminal justice models that sanction offenders via content removal or user bans. However, these models write the targets out of the justice-seeking process. 

“Victims’ rights are an important component of the justice system in the US, but on social media sites, victims receive little or no acknowledgement of the harms they have experienced,” explained Schoenebeck. “Further, people from protected social groups and minorities communities are subject to ongoing and extreme harm on social media, perpetuating and magnifying injustices they experience in their lives.”

The Communications Decency Act’s Section 230 has effectively absolved platforms from responsibility for harmful content, the researchers said. While it originally proposed that companies should not be neutral in their content moderation decisions, accusations of political bias have left companies scrambling to satisfy multi-stakeholder demands via claims of neutrality.

Social media platforms have also prioritized engagement at the expense of protecting users, allowing harmful content to remain on the site because it attracts attention and advertising revenue.

“The result is that targets of hate speech, harassment, and discrimination are silenced, obliterating the very tenets of free speech that Section 230 was aiming to protect,” said Schoenebeck. “Our research proposes that social media sites should be responsible for reducing harm to their users, especially those from marginalized identities, and that Section 230 could be expanded to include that responsibility.” 

Schoenebeck and Nakamura’s project is one of 20 that received $1.7 million today from Knight to focus on research to inform the public conversation on current issues in technology policy, including free expression online and the scale and power of digital platforms. These grants, which come amid growing debate over technology’s role in  democracy, will help ensure that society is equipped to make evidence-based decisions on how to govern and manage the now-digital — and increasingly privately-owned — public square. 

The awards mark the culmination of Knight’s $50 million commitment to catalyze new research to inform how technology is transforming our democracy. Knight’s overall investment has led to the establishment of new research centers at five universities around the country, and is supporting a range of ongoing research at a growing network of institutions of higher learning, independent research organizations and policy think tanks focused on understanding technology’s impact on democracy and helping to inform solutions.

"As we proceed from a pandemic to an election, everything about technology is getting bigger: the companies, their role in our lives, and the debate about how to manage what we say and do online,” said Sam Gill, Knight’s senior vice president and chief program officer. “From COVID-related misinformation to labeled posts by the president, it's clear that we need to chart a path forward about how to best protect democratic values in a digital age.”

Associate professor Sarita Schoenebeck is an information and computer scientist with expertise in social media and social inequities, especially in domains related to justice, harassment, gender, privacy, and dark patterns.

Professor Lisa Nakamura is a world-renowned critical scholar of race and gender online. Her research examines racism and sexism in video games, histories of indigenous electronic manufacture in post-war America, content moderation by women of color on social media, and virtual reality’s claims to produce racial and gender empathy.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is a national foundation that invests in journalism, the arts, and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. The organization’s goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which the foundation believes are essential for a healthy democracy.


Media Contacts:

University of Michigan School of Information: Jessica Webster Sendra, [email protected]

Knight Foundation Communications Officer: Raul Garcia, [email protected]


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