Jennifer EvansProfessor Jennifer Evans has just been named as one of the recipients of the Social Data Research and Dissertation Fellowship program for her project entitled “Historical Analogy, Covid-19, and the 2020 US Election: How Historical Misinformation Undermines Democratic Institutions“.

Project Abstract

Understanding how history is used and abused is essential to unmasking falsification in the public register. This project researches the use of historical analogies amidst the Covid-19 crisis in the lead up to and aftermath of the 2020 US election to analyze the role of social media in normalizing misinformation. In this multiplatform data analysis, we explore how far-right extremist and populist groups use false historical claims to cultivate civic mistrust in institutions and experts and evaluate in what way this enters the mainstream. By evoking historical analogies, from the legacy of National Socialism to a mythic vision of the American historical past, they foment civil discord around hot-button issues including race, immigration, and disease origin and transmission, and large-scale state investment in the economy, public health, and lockdown measures. We will map out how this delegitimizes liberal democratic institutions, policies, and traditions by rewriting the histories that undergird them, histories that are themselves fraught especially on matters of race. Our research asks: What tactics, strategies, networks, and repertoires enable these misinformation campaigns to take hold? How and in what way does it bubble up from social media into the mainstream? And to what extent is it drawing from or pushing the agendas of mainstream political actors in the US election campaign? The data generated from this research will provide a baseline of analysis for more comparative work considering the role of radical and populist actors in shaping how history is used to advance undemocratic agendas through participatory media.

About the Fellowship

Ongoing work at the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) over the past several years identified the importance of access to socially relevant data in order for researchers to address large issues that enhance scholarly knowledge and also inform, empower, and protect the public interest.

The Social Data Research and Dissertation Fellowship program, offered by the SSRC Social Data Initiative and supported by the Omidyar Network, seeks to encourage multifaceted pathways for the collection and analysis of social data, with the larger aim of cultivating robust research on technology and society. Multiple pathways for journalistic and academic study of proprietary socially relevant data are necessary in order to build a robust culture of research and accountability and therefore better protect democracy and the public.

In this initial grant cycle, fellows were asked to focus on the forthcoming 2020 election in the United States, while thinking creatively about possible approaches to gathering and analyzing relevant data. In selecting the fifteen projects below, the SSRC followed the values that have guided it in its nearly 100-year history, including a commitment to an open application process that invites all eligible proposals and adherence to a rigorous, independent peer review process that evaluates projects based on clearly stated review criteria. Because of ongoing concerns about privacy and ethics related to social data, the SSRC developed and applied an additional ethics review process for all recommended proposals. This ethics review process is intended to serve as an additional check and, most importantly, provide substantive feedback to successful applicants so that they can refine their projects with an ethical framework in mind.

The selected projects will offer important and timely perspectives to the 2020 election. From studying the impact of inequality on political participation to exploring the prevalence and effects of mis- and disinformation, the awarded projects also reflect a full range of methodological and disciplinary approaches: experiments, computational and panel surveys, content analysis, and ethnographic interviews, as well as computational text analysis, sentiment analysis, and other natural language processing approaches to social media datasets. Projects will strengthen scholarly understanding of how polarization, toxicity, and inequality impact the election. A grant to Social Data Research Fellow Brooke Foucault Welles supports a project that, drawing on Twitter and other unique research data, will examine how marginalized groups experience political voice, attention, and participation in the United States, and how that may translate to political behavior in the 2020 election. Social Data Research Fellow Ashley Muddiman will explore—through quantitative content analysis and an experiment—patterns of incivility targeting women candidates during the 2020 general election. Other awarded projects examine the ethics of social media research, trust and skepticism in the media, and the effect of anonymity on political—and toxic—speech, among many other topics.

More details on the fellowship and the other recipients can be found on the SSRC website.