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Investigating New Digital Authorities

In the years since social media became part of our daily lives, an increased number of individuals are self-organizing online around identity, social topics, and various other interests. This transition leads to a new type of cultural authority and one that researchers are investigating to understand how the online human world interacts with the offline human world at both the individual and collective level. 

Sergey Gavrilets, Distinguished Professor in the UT Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, received a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to research the emergence of these new digital authorities on social media. The $1.2 million grant is the largest Templeton Foundation award in UT history.

“I’ve always been puzzled by how presumably reasonable people can come up with completely different strong beliefs or understandings about the same events or processes that happened or are happening in different situations affecting their personal life or our society,” Gavrilets said. “Over the last couple of years, with the 2020 elections and COVID, these differences have become particularly striking and their real and potential consequences particularly dangerous.”

The big question he wants to answer? “How are contemporary social media changing human social and cultural evolution?”

Understanding How New Authorities Develop

Gavrilets and colleague Neil Johnson from the George Washington University will leverage recent work on online behaviors to build a new understanding of how these new authorities develop and function. They will look at how these new authorities contribute to cultural polarizations and how their efforts and impacts are influenced. 

“We will study the emergence of self-organized groups spouting extremism, hate, and vaccine hesitancy within and across social media platforms,” Gavrilets said. “We will look at their structure and try to understand how its composition defines who listens and how these new identity groups emerge.”

Gavrilets, a mathematical biologist whose work focuses on human social behavior, will borrow ideas and theoretical tools from ecology and evolutionary biology and apply them to human social behaviors online. 

“This work will not only help us to understand online human social behaviors better, but also how our attitudes and beliefs are shaped,” said Gavrilets, who also is the director of the Center for the Dynamics of Social Complexity at UT.

“Misinformation about science, climate change, vaccination, COVID, and political processes and events has a potential to affect the life, prosperity, and wellbeing of everyone in a negative way,” Gavrilets said. “By understanding how new social and cultural authorities are formed online, we can develop better policies for governments and businesses to counter misinformation and simultaneously promote public understanding of science-based policies aiming to improve our life and prosperity.”

To learn more, read the full project summary online

About the John Templeton Foundation

Founded in 1987, the John Templeton Foundation supports research and catalyzes conversations that inspire people with awe and wonder. They fund work on subjects ranging from black holes and evolution to creativity, forgiveness, and free will. They also encourage civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, theologians, and the public at large. Their aspiration is to help people create lives of meaning and purpose and to become a global catalyst for discoveries that contribute to human flourishing.

With an endowment of $3.8 billion and annual giving of approximately $140 million, the Foundation ranks among the 25 largest grantmaking foundations in the United States. Headquartered outside Philadelphia, their philanthropic activities have engaged all major faith traditions and extended to more than 57 countries around the world.