Facebook opens data to researchers studying the role of social media in elections

Facebook opens data to researchers studying the role of social media in elections
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Facebook on Monday announced that it is opening up troves of its data to researchers studying the role of social media in elections, an unprecedented move by a generally secretive company. 

The announcement comes a little over a year after Facebook first announced that it would be partnering with outside social science research centers to look into the effects of social media on democracies and elections.  

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The company in a blog post on Monday announced that its research institute partners, Social Science One and the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), had officially chosen a group of more than 60 researchers who will "gain access to privacy-protected Facebook data."  

The research projects emerge as Facebook faces more scrutiny than ever over the manipulation and misuse of its platform during election cycles. The tech giant has been accused of not doing enough as foreign and domestic actors spread misinformation across its suite of services, including Instagram, during important world events. 

Social Science One in its own post said the grant-making process was previously held up by privacy concerns around allowing researchers unfettered access to sensitive user data, and it has worked with Facebook over the last six months to build a portal that they believe is adequately secure.

Facebook said that it has put in place some safeguards to ensure individual users cannot be identified by researchers, including by adding "statistical noise" to the datasets and securing the portal that holds the data.    

The researchers, which were chosen by the SSRC and Social Science One without input from Facebook, will be able to access information on URLs shared by Facebook users from 2017-2019 — a time frame that does not include the 2016 U.S. presidential election. 

The most recent U.S. presidential election marked an inflection point for Facebook after investigators discovered that a Russian troll farm had been allowed to spread misinformation and buy thousands of political ads on the platform as Russian intelligence sought to divide the U.S. electorate ahead of a pivotal election cycle. 

Since then, researchers have demanded greater transparency around the extent to which Russians were allowed to take advantage of the platform in 2016, and how similar efforts have been replicated ahead of elections and democratic processes in other countries. 

A Facebook spokesperson told The Hill that there could be additional rounds of data released in the future, and this is only the first round of grants, in response to a question about the time frame of the URL database. The spokesperson said Facebook hopes to make more data available in the future, but it is moving slowly in order to ensure there are adequate privacy protections. 

The database will include information about URLs shared during the 2018 midterm elections in the U.S.  

Researchers will also gain access to CrowdTangle, a tool that shows the popularity of certain content across Facebook and its image-sharing platform Instagram, which will provide insights into Facebook activity stretching back years — including the 2016 election. 

And they will be able to search through Facebook's Ad Library API, a database of political ads posted to the website since last August. 

The projects that have received grants during this first round include U.S.-based research including "Measuring the Effects of Peer Sharing on Fake and Polarized News Consumption" by researchers at Northeastern University and "Understanding Problematic Sharing Behavior on Facebook" by researchers at Ohio State University and the University of Michigan, as well as more global investigations by researchers studying Facebook behavior around elections in Germany, Chile, Brazil and more.