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Dutch scientist receives top award for work on digital media’s effect on society

Utrecht University media scientist José van Dijck wins the Spinoza Award and funds for her research into the effects of social media on society

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Dutch university professor José van Dijck of Utrecht University has won the Spinoza Prize for her research into the impact of digital media on social life. The prize is the highest scientific award in the Netherlands, and carries a cash payment of 2.5m. 

Media studies is a relatively young research field in the Netherlands in which Van Dijck has grown and left her mark. At the beginning of this century, she started as a professor at the University of Amsterdam and focused on television in an era of digital technology. “That was very progressive back then, because nobody thought that television would ever be part of the digital environment,” she said.   

Soon after that, Van Dijck started researching social media, “just as platforms such as Facebook started to emerge to where we are now, in a very digital society”. 

She has really put the subject on the map with her research, as students in the Netherlands can now study media science at almost all universities.  

“I had no idea I had been nominated for the Spinoza Prize,” said Van Dijck. “It was really a complete surprise. It is a very tough selection process in which scientists are nominated by the presidents of their universities. Then there is a tough review process in which mainly international experts are involved to evaluate your academic achievements. I didn’t know I was part of that selection process at all, so I was very surprised.” 

Although the prize obviously means a lot to her personally – “You only win this prize once in your lifetime” – Van Dijck is particularly pleased with the 2.5m prize that she is allowed to spend on research. “It is always difficult to obtain research funding – it is preceded by very competitive and tough processes,” she said. “But now I get a prize that I can spend on the research that I want.” 

The Spinoza Prize is awarded annually by the Dutch Research Council to three or four researchers working in the country who, by international standards, are among the very best scientists in the world. The laureates conduct high-level pioneering research and are therefore an inspiration for new researchers.

The prize is named after Baruch Spinoza, an internationally renowned Dutch scientist and an example of freedom of research. In addition to a bronze statue of Spinoza, the award-winning scientist receives a cash prize to use for further scientific research.  

Van Dijck cannot wait to put the money into several projects. “Two years ago, we initiated a research group called Governing the Digital Society,” she said. “The larger part of the money will be spend to expand my research group. In addition, I want to use part of the prize to support organisations that conduct research into digitisation in the field of public institutions, such as KennisnetSURF and Publicspaces.”

PublicSpaces is a coalition of various public organisations, such as public broadcasters, heritage institutions, festivals, libraries, museums and education, which are working together to solve a common problem – that they are largely dependent on big tech companies and their platforms for their communication, information and media circulation. Such companies are primarily driven by commercial interests, rather than public values such as privacy, autonomy and transparency.  

Governing the Digital Society 

Governing the Digital Society is a multidisciplinary research group that promotes research into the social processes of datafication, algorithmisation and platformisation. Central to the research is the strengthening of independent and public institutions in the digital age by making their digital environments more transparent and accountable.

“I am going to use the Spinoza Prize to strengthen this focus area with young researchers,” said Van Dijck. “It has been running for two years now and is already bearing a lot of fruit. What is so nice about Governing the Digital Society is that we work with different disciplines from the humanities, such as media and communication, the social sciences, such as law, and information and computer sciences. All participating researchers have to learn to speak each other’s language and understand each other’s challenges.”

Van Dijck is a great advocate of team science and learning from each other.  

“Research into the impact of digital media on our social lives and how this knowledge can be used to increase transparency and trust in society has never been more relevant than now,” she added. “Our social life is increasingly shifting to the online environment. It used to be that conversations in the schoolyard were heard just by the children who participated, and once you had said something, it would evaporate.

“Nowadays, conversations are no longer private. Online, every word or picture is registered, stored and distributed. This creates a completely different context. What you used to say to your neighbour in front of your house, you now post on Twitter, but it has very different effects and consequences. This transformation of the social environment is something we are struggling with hugely.”

Also, many control mechanisms, such as regulation and legislation, are still based on the physical environment, said Van Dijck, whereas online, all kinds of other issues emerge, such as privacy, security, who has access to what data and what can and cannot be collected and stored.

“The large platforms we use today collect an enormous amount of data and metadata,” she said. “It is important to think about this. What are the consequences for legislation and regulation, for example? How do digital technologies shape our social interaction? These kinds of questions require reflection on public values – values such as privacy, transparency and democratic control.

“My research therefore focuses on how we can embed these public values in the design of digital systems. And the larger question that this, in turn, raises is: how do we steer our digital society?” 

That is why the interdisciplinary collaboration within Governing the Digital Society is so important, said Van Dijck. “Every scholar looks at the influence of digitisation on society and how we can inscribe public values in its design from the perspective of their own discipline. Aligning these different points of view ensures that we increasingly understand what problems we are facing and account for public interests at an early stage.

“For example, an IT architect can build in privacy and security principles when designing a system, and a legal scholar needs to understand at least the basics of coding and software architecture. If we combine our insights, this focus area produces many wonderful effects.”

And with the cash prize from the Spinoza Award, Van Dijck can further contribute to this field of research.

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