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  • Department of Communication
  • Behavior
  • Communication

The Citizens and Technology (CAT) Lab, led by J. Nathan Matias, assistant professor of communication in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, recently received nearly $1.3 million in grants to further its citizen science studies on the effects of digital technology on society.

The CAT Lab received a $300,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation in December 2020; earlier this month, the lab was awarded $999,637 from the Templeton World Charity Foundation.

The grants will be used in research addressing the question: How can society foster meaningful dialogue and create shared knowledge in a world connected by digital networks and shaped by algorithms?

The lab takes a citizen science approach to investigating the social impact of digital technologies and life online. The grants will help launch projects looking at how algorithms shape the social dynamics that amplify online racism and sexism – and, ultimately, how society can prevent harmful behaviors, or intervene when they occur.

Digital communications have enabled conversation and knowledge creation at previously unimaginable scales. Billions of people now routinely connect, across physical and cultural distances, to share knowledge, creativity and opportunity. These digital connections, coordinated and governed by software algorithms, have also made society more resilient to global crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, these large-scale digital systems are fraught with conflict and exclusion – and sometimes violence. The CAT Lab aims to study the effects of fostering positive behaviors and connections, working alongside communities on large-scale online platforms Wikipedia and Reddit.

“Every day, hundreds of thousands of people volunteer to maintain human connection online, even as people are losing faith in tech companies,” Matias said. “These grants will help communities hold power accountable and make evidence-based decisions about digital life.”

With the funding, the lab will:

  • conduct at least 15 studies (including replications) that advance social science by testing ways to improve online dialogue and knowledge creation – through virtue-based behaviors, social connections and social norms;
  • extend its open science research software to further scale citizen behavioral science to include more communities, a wider circle of scientific collaborators and greater nuance in the social theories it tests; and
  • convene research summits that develop community-led research agendas to support flourishing online communities.

 To ensure the scientific validify of the resulting studies, the lab will create a ​scientific advisory board​ of senior researchers in communication, social psychology and other relevant social sciences. These advisers will offer scientific input at key stages in the study.

A key component of this research, Matias said, is engagement: These projects involve collaboration with the public, and are independent from the tech industry.

“When scientists work alongside the public, we can improve lives and advance the frontiers of knowledge at the same time,” he said. “By testing ideas to improve our communities, we can also discover enduring lessons about ourselves.”

Matias developed CAT Lab as part of his Ph.D. work at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab and the MIT Center for Civic Media. Matias received his doctorate from MIT in 2017; he joined the Cornell faculty in 2019.

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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