NEW YORK—The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University announced today that Arvind Narayanan, associate professor of computer science and incoming director of Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy, and J. Nathan Matias, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Cornell University, will join the Institute later this year as visiting researchers. Narayanan’s work with the Institute will focus on how social media platforms’ algorithms shape the online speech environment. Matias will focus on how to promote innovative and inclusive paths forward for industry-independent research on technology and society.

“We’re thrilled to welcome Professors Narayanan and Matias to the Institute and are looking forward to working closely with them on these important and timely projects,” said Jameel Jaffer, the Knight Institute’s executive director. “We’re eager to support their research as well as to involve these two leading technologists in all aspects of the Knight Institute’s work, including our research, litigation, and public education programs.”

Narayanan will begin his term as visiting senior research scientist in September 2022 for the 2022-2023 academic year, and carry out a research project that looks at how algorithms shape the speech environment on social media platforms, aiming specifically to sharpen understanding of the ways in which the platforms’ algorithms distort speech. He will explore whether a more nuanced understanding of the computer science of algorithmic distortion could open up new regulatory avenues. As part of his tenure, Narayanan will organize a series of workshops for specific audiences, such as journalists, and he will curate a set of essays focused on AI and online speech by legal scholars, sociologists, and others with complementary expertise. In the spring of 2023, the Institute will host a major conference on this work as well.

Matias, who leads the Citizens and Technology Lab at Cornell, will join the Institute as visiting associate research scholar in the summer of 2022 and return in the summer of 2023, during which time he will focus on two separate projects that promote innovative and inclusive paths forward for industry-independent research on technology and society. First, he will continue to co-organize alongside the newly launched Coalition for Independent Tech Research, which aims to advance, defend, and sustain the right to ethically study the impact of technology on society. In addition, he will work on a paper focusing on the importance of diversity in industry-independent research. During the following summer, Matias will develop a multi-year research agenda and plan a convening to be held in the fall of 2023 on reinforcement learning, human-algorithm behavior, and freedom of expression.

“We’re excited that these scholars bring computer science, social science, and coalition-building expertise to their projects with the Institute,” said Katy Glenn Bass, the Knight Institute’s research director. “This interdisciplinary approach is one we’re committed to fostering through our research program, and we look forward to helping them explore challenging questions around distorted speech and industry-independent research, and bring their findings to a wider audience.”

“We don’t currently have a great understanding of how social media platforms’ algorithms distort speech, and so are limited to advocating for blunt interventions like blocking speech or shutting down platforms outright,” said Narayanan. “My goal during my tenure at the Knight Institute is to get into the trenches and uncover how algorithmic distortion operates in practice. We need to move past the ‘folk understanding’ of algorithmic distortion which is superficial and unreliable as a guide to policy.”

“For tech policies to advance safety, justice, and basic rights, we need access to evidence that can inform both science and governance. The recently launched Coalition for Independent Tech Research aims to establish and defend responsible access,” said Matias. “By requiring tech companies to grant access to journalists, academics, and community scientists, we can spot harms, understand them better, and test methods to mitigate them. In my work, this means collaborating with communities in community/citizen science about our digital environments and testing ideas for change. The public wrestles daily with the role of social media algorithms for their own democratic expression, and I look forward to working with the Knight Institute to develop a science of human-algorithm behavior that aligns with the spirit of the First Amendment.”

The Institute’s current visiting research scholar is Genevieve Lakier, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, who has been organizing a series of public events focused on lies and the law, culminating with a major symposium earlier this month entitled Lies, Free Speech, and the Law. Previous visiting scholars include Ethan Zuckerman, associate professor of public policy, information, and communication at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and director of the Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure; Amy Kapczynski, professor of law at Yale Law School and faculty co-director of the Law and Political Economy Project; Jamal Greene, Dwight Professor of Law at Columbia Law School; and David Pozen, Charles Keller Beekman Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. More information about their projects is available here:

For more information, contact Adriana Lamirande, [email protected]