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Research

Arena works with partners across the world to carry out relevant projects and disseminate results

Arena is very much a ‘do’-tank, dedicated to finding the best practices and methodologies to defeat disinformation. Arena works with partners across the world – our unique network includes academics, computer scientists and activists, as well as leaders in government, the media, the military and civil society – to carry out relevant projects and disseminate results.

The Arena programme focuses on three main thematic areas: 1) Research designed to help journalists in democracies; 2) Research designed to help advocates for democracy; and 3) Research designed to help governments and societies understand the manipulation of social media. In addition, Arena seeks to build coalitions around all of these issues to explore further steps.

What we do

The Arena programme crosses traditional boundaries, bringing together academics from the fields of methodology, statistics, communications and behavioural science with journalists, activists and government organisations.

Arena’s individual research projects aim to produce both short-term insights and longer-term recommendations. For example, Arena’s investigation into the influence of foreign actors and online groups on the 2017 German federal election produced both real time journalism and post-facto analysis.

As each project begins to deliver results, Arena will use the lessons learned to fine tune that project’s design. At every projects’ conclusion, the results will then be collected and analysed to produce a series of best practices and recommendations. Over the next three years, these will in turn inform both long term academic research and the development of practical “tools.” Over time, this feedback loop will produce a body of best practices which have been rigorously tested.

Our projects

Helping journalists overcome polarisation and misinformation in an age of digital populism

It’s no longer a secret that people who interact online in ‘echo chambers’ – polarised communities which have been deliberately reinforced by the promotion of divisive issues – are more likely to believe false information. Even when confronted with facts that contradict their beliefs, many people who inhabit these partisan worlds reject or ignore them.

Arena will use data analysis to first better understand the audiences prone to conspiracy theories, and then to create articles, stories, films and other content that might better reach them. The goal of this effort is to make facts palatable and to enable more constructive and evidence-driven debate.

Arena has worked on the first project of this kind in Italy. Arena, Corriere Della Serra and the University of Venice have experimented with the divisive issue of migration. The project analysed the Italian online audience, and then measure the reactions of that audience to the stories it produced. Ultimately the point is to help journalists engage people more effectively in the future.

Read the report here.

We see this as a first step: in order to have broader significance, this kind of project must be repeated in other democracies affected by divisive politics. Arena is currently undergoing similar projects in Ukraine and Hungary.

Social media for democracy 

In the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring and Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution, many hoped social media would strengthen democratic development and undermine authoritarian regimes. Instead, authoritarians have used the internet to sow confusion and cynicism, divide democratic movements, and threaten dissidents. Arena seeks to understand how new media can be used to inspire democratic development, both in autocracies and in democracies whose institutions are coming under threat.

Arena’s first project in this area seeks to understand what motivates and interests Russian audiences. Our partners include sociologists and statisticians from the LSE, as well as a team with expertise in the production of online content. We will be measuring the impact of different online strategies.

Making democracies resilient to foreign disinformation and subversion 

The borderless nature of new media helps the free flow of ideas across the world. But it has also enabled the spread of disinformation and toxic speech campaigns. Over the past few years, Arena’s directors, Professor Anne Applebaum and Peter Pomerantsev, have produced some of the most important analysis of Russia’s use of social media and other tactics to undermine Western democracies and have written, given testified and advised policymakers on this issue in the US and Europe. The problem however is not restricted to Russia.

Transnational alliances of state and non-state actors, including ultranationalists and other extremists, are now coming together to run disinformation campaigns in most western democracies. In 2017, Arena produced an analysis of the influence of Russian and other foreign and ‘alt-right’ groups in the 2017 German federal election. Working together with data analysts at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and editors at publishing house Axel Springer, this project mapped conversations in the far left, far right and Russian-German social media, monitored Kremlin and far right publications, and investigated who was behind automated propaganda. Research from this project was widely published in Germany, both during the elections and afterwards. Similar projects are planned in Britain and elsewhere.

In this field, Arena is seeking to draw on historical experience. In addition to our practical work, our team has recently authored a 70-page study on the Cold War experience of Soviet subversion, analysing past tactics in order to draw lessons for the present.

 

Building coalitions

Arena is also seeking to create broader coalitions. In addition to its research projects, we have initiated a series of ‘track-two’ meetings between social media companies, politicians, and journalists. Arena’s directors are both involved in aiding the development of policies and projects at the US State Department, as well as the EU and UK foreign offices. As board members and advisers, individuals associated with Arena contribute to the work of other foundations, including the National Endowment for Democracy and the European Endowment for Democracy.