Ask David Lazer what he thinks about the current state of American democracy, and he’ll show you a picture of a burning dumpster. He can tell you why: Polarization is on the rise, trust in the news media is down, and the disparity between rich and poor has intensified.
But unlike some, when Lazer peers into the fire, he sees an opportunity for change.
Lazer, the Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Computer and Information Sciences as well as the founding co-director of the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks at Northeastern, has written extensively on the topic of democracy. He co-authored with colleagues a book, Politics with the People: Building a Directly Representative Democracy, that offers a solution for improving representative government by directly connecting citizens and elected officials.
He has other ideas for fixing democracy. In the wake of a study which found that a massive amount of fake news during the 2016 election was produced and consumed by a very small amount of users, Lazer recommended that social media companies limit how frequently its users are allowed to post.
“We’ve found that sharing tons of content is correlated with sharing tons of garbage; this super-sharing disproportionately affects fake news and misinformation,” he said. “If you put a speed limit on how often you can share, it would dramatically cut down the spread of fake news.”
He has also suggested that universities team up with news organizations to provide analysis of social media datasets—a service that many news companies don’t have the resources to build themselves.
Lazer shared these ideas at the 55th annual Robert D. Klein Lecture in March, where he was chosen to deliver the address as this year’s Klein Lecturer.
The award was established in 1964, and is given each year to a member of the teaching faculty who has contributed with distinction to his or her field of study.
The lectureship was renamed in 1979 in tribute to the late Robert D. Klein, professor of mathematics, chairman of the Faculty Senate Agenda Committee, and vice chairman of the Faculty Senate.
In recognition of his achievements, Northeastern is giving Lazer the highest honor the university can bestow upon a faculty member, promoting him to the rank of University Distinguished Professor. The honorific title is conferred at the behest of the president and provost upon faculty members who have earned international recognition and distinction for their transformative educational and scholarly contributions.
He will be one of several honorees celebrated by President Joseph E. Aoun at Academic Honors Convocation ceremonies on April 18 and 23. The annual event recognizes students and faculty who have received prestigious awards for scholarship, research, or teaching over the past year.
Lazer said he is “honored” to have been named a University Distinguished Professor.
The Klein Lectureship was particularly meaningful to him, he said, “because it provided an opportunity to discuss with the broader community at Northeastern how we can strengthen our democracy at a point in time when it is confronting multiple challenges.”
An internationally recognized expert in network sciences and politics, and a pioneer in the discipline of computational social science, Lazer joined Northeastern in 2009. He has published widely on fake news and political participation.
One project he’s presently working on is finding ways to build robust information systems in which “quality information is amplified and shared, and effectively pooled, and low quality information is de-amplified.”
“The goal is that this general framework has relevance to the effectiveness of groups, organizations, and hopefully to the successful operation of democracy,” he said.
Lazer was nominated by Uta Poiger, dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, and Carla Brodley, dean of Khoury College of Computer Sciences, who praised his leadership in computational and humanics initiatives at Northeastern.
“Professor Lazer’s superlative record of impactful collaborative research and publications and his role in providing leadership to network science, computational social science and supporting the development of the digital humanities at Northeastern make him an exceptional candidate for the honor ofUniversity Distinguished Professor,” they wrote in their nomination letter.