NDSU researcher receives award to study how countries control online access to information

Dan Pemstein, associate professor of political science and public policy, has been awarded a National Science Foundation grant of $737,487 to study the impact of misinformation on social media and how countries seek to control online space. Pemstein is the principal investigator for the project, which is part of a larger collaboration with investigators at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Brandeis University.

Pemstein studies the challenges that digital networks pose to democracies across the globe. A political economist and methodologist, he seeks to understand with the new project how often governments filter or completely shut down social media when it doesn’t conform to their specific political needs. He also wants to examine the measures taken and tools utilized by individual citizens in maintaining their own privacy. The project will create an infrastructure to collect data from around the world about cybersecurity, internet freedom, disinformation, coordinated information operations, and the politicization and polarization of social media.

This project aims to learn how countries monitor, alter, and control online space. Pemstein notes how this information will be critically important to many groups including policy makers, who can use the results of this project to better understand how to curb internet-driven political violence, stop the spread of disinformation, reduce electoral manipulation, and enhance government accountability.

“But it doesn’t stop there,” he adds. “Civil society groups can use the assessments to improve human rights surveillance; firms can use the data to reduce harm caused by their social media platforms; and teachers and students can use this project to better understand politics in a digital world, equipping citizens to safely traverse the modern information landscape. And this information will be housed at NDSU, making our institution the center of a global resource of valuable information.”

The new project is connected to the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Project. V-Dem was founded in 2014 as an independent research institute headquartered at the Department of Political Science, University of Gothenburg, Sweden. A database of information from across the globe for measuring and studying democratic institutions, V-Dem is a maintained by a team of over 50 social scientists on six continents. Pemstein designs statistical tools for the project and serves on the Institute’s steering committee.

Given the similarities of the two research projects, Pemstein plans to shape the new project around methodologies used in V-Dem. “At V-Dem, we rely on more than 3,500 democracy experts in countries across the globe for our information,” he said. “The new project will be set up much the same but will instead tap the expertise of cybersecurity experts to track how social media is affecting individual countries’ access to information.”

One challenge of this methodology is ensuring each expert reports information in a consistent and reliable manner. Pemstein and his team at V-Dem adapted models from educational testing to tackle this problem and he plans to deploy the same techniques here. “We start with local experts who rate how countries regulate and control digital information. These experts are much like exam graders and we can apply this methodology to adjust for differences in how `hard’ each expert grades, and to evaluate experts’ reliability.”

This new project began with work initiated by a researcher at Facebook. “She was interested in studying the impact the platform had upon elections, recalls Pemstein. “The Digital Society Project started out as an expert survey that relied on V-Dem’s pools of experts in media freedom and related areas, but this award allows us to extend the expert pool to scholars and practitioners with deep knowledge of social media, internet regulation, and cybersecurity.”

“Collaborative Research: HNDS-I: The Digital Society Project: Infrastructure for Measuring Internet Politics” (award abstract # 2121851) is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense."

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