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The online world is central to our daily lives. But social media platforms are not the Utopian spaces for worldwide human connection their founders envisioned.

Instead, this human-technology interface has fundamentally altered how cultures evolve and interact, how behaviors spread, and whose voices are the loudest in our public discourse. The result is not always human flourishing. Rather, social media has been implicated in the spread of misinformation, polarization, and even political violence.

These problems demand scientific study as the basis for concrete action.

We recognize the mass uptake of social media as a major transition in cultural evolution. And so we must turn to the field of cultural evolution – which applies evolutionary theory to study humankind itself – to understand online culture and, especially, the role of social media in shaping the way people talk to one another.

Social media platforms are de facto institutions of the digital age. They set the rules and algorithms that govern online interactions and anoint online authorities. But the social contracts we make with these institutions – the norms of online behavior – are also the result of cultural evolution among platform users.

We will study six areas of concern for online behavior: 1) misinformation 2) distortion from echo-chambers 3) antisocial behavior 4) biased platform rules 5) the impact of influencers, and 6) growing polarization. We will develop mathematical models to describe these inter-related phenomena, and then use those models, in combination with cross-cultural data, to determine how social media platforms exacerbate or mitigate these problems.

This work will focus attention where the problem truly lies: the dynamics of online cultural evolution. We will produce a predictive theory of online behavior. This will provide a sound scientific basis for policy discussion on how to design and regulate social media platforms to facilitate human flourishing.