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NDSU researcher to join international study of online misinformation and effects on democracy

Dan Pemstein, associate professor of political science and public policy at NDSU, has received a grant to build a database about online censorship and how misinformation spread on social media affects democracies around the world.

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The campus at North Dakota State University is seen on March 23, 2020. Forum file photo
Forum Communications Co.

FARGO — A North Dakota State University researcher has received a grant to study misinformation disseminated through social media and how countries are seeking to control online spaces.

Dan Pemstein, associate professor of political science and public policy, has been awarded a National Science Foundation grant of nearly $740,000 to expand an existing collaboration with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.

The new project began with work initiated by a researcher at Facebook who wanted to study the impact the platform had on elections, Pemstein said.

One of his aims is to understand how often governments filter or shut down social media channels when a message doesn’t conform to their specific political needs.

The project will create an infrastructure for collecting data from around the world about online censorship, the politicization of social media, foreign influence on domestic politics and coordinated misinformation campaigns.

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Pemstein said one example is ongoing deliberate misinformation efforts by Russia and China to interfere with democracy in the United States.

“What’s less clear is how much (those efforts) change people’s opinions,” he said.

He also referenced internal misinformation campaigns about former President Donald Trump and the 2020 election that still claim it was not a free and fair election.

“That worries me a ton,” Pemstein said.

The project, and Pemstein, are also tied to the Varieties of Democracy or V-Dem, an independent research institute at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, which has a team of more than 50 social scientists on six continents.

Pemstein designs statistical tools and surveys for the institute and is on its steering committee.

As part of the project, a new survey will be designed specifically for cybersecurity experts, he said, with the hope of developing a nuanced map of digital politics around the world.

Pemstein said the data could be valuable to governments interested in improving cybersecurity and curbing internet-driven political violence and to institutions such as Facebook and Twitter for mitigating misinformation on their platforms.

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The data could also be useful to civil society organizations, teachers and students, and will be housed at NDSU, Pemstein said.

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