In a digital landscape ripe with questions about privacy, regulations for social media platforms and uncertainty about how consumer data is being used, UNC established the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life — hoping to gather empirical data on some of the 21st century’s underlying phenomena.
“It’s just the way the ecosystem of the web works,” said Daniel Kreiss, an associate professor in the School of Media and Journalism. “The only way that anybody makes money is a tradeoff based on data.”
Kreiss researches social media platforms and how they develop their content policies, and the rationales behind their often closed-door operations surrounding transparency, de-platforming and other issues.
Kreiss, along with other UNC faculty, will lead the way at the new center, which will conduct public-oriented and academic research into the digital landscape.
The center will be made possible by a number of donations, the biggest being a $5 million gift from the Knight Foundation, part of a $50 million wide-scale campaign the foundation to invest in the research of 11 universities, all regarding technology’s impact on democracy. The Knight Foundation received over 100 applications for funding.
Philanthropic organization Luminate and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation donated $750,000 and $600,000, respectively.
Kreiss said a decline of trust in institutional journalism has led the public to seek out information in other areas of the internet. Pew Research reported in 2018 that social media sites have surpassed print journalism as a news source for Americans.
Kreiss said the rabbit-hole of the social media world leaves troublesome questions unanswered.
“Strategic actors can do things like buy targeted advertisements and it’s entirely impossible for citizens to see who gets targeted with that information and how it’s targeted,” he said. “It turns out that Google and Facebook are getting data from porn websites too.”
Companies like Facebook and Google mine internet users’ data from websites across the internet, and Kreiss said they’re financially inclined to engage with salacious and sensational content, as it often gets the most engagement from users.
“What gets so complicated about this is that many consumers have made the decision that they’re willing to trade their data for free content, or at the very least, for the convenience of being able to surf the web or have it personalized,” Kreiss said.
Gary Marchionini is the dean of the School of Information and Library Sciences, the official home of the new center. He researches human-computer interactions, and thinks people should be aware of how their online behavior rakes in cash for big tech.
“It’s buying something on Amazon and then being almost stalked with similar kinds of products. It’s looking at a Youtube video for some casual interest that takes you off in a direction you may or may not want to go in,” he said. “Ultimately people really are affected by these things and if we’re not being a little more critical about these behaviors we’re going to be disappointed down the road.”
The leaders of UNC’s new center plan on drawing in faculty from all over campus, as well as undergrads and graduate students, to help brainstorm answers to the pervasive, existential questions that have come along with the massive growth of social media platforms.
They plan on gathering empirical data that will benefit the public, lawmakers and academics — providing context for the social media universe in a time when consumers are wholeheartedly engaging with the platforms, despite the already-clear privacy drawbacks.
“It’s really hard to opt out,” Kreiss said. “If you’re not opting out, then you’re basically buying into this ecosystem that you don’t have a ton of control over, and the only way to not be tracked is to give up your free porn or give up your free movies.”
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