Facebook Turns to Scholars to Analyze Social Media’s Impact on Elections

The social network will not review or approve research findings prior to publication

'Respected academic experts' will form a commission

Facebook is going back to school: The social network announced an initiative that will see a group of scholars analyze the impact of social media on elections.

Vice president of communications and public policy Elliot Schrage and director of research David Ginsberg announced in a Newsroom post that the initiative will be funded by the John and Laura Arnold Foundation, the Democracy Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, the Omidyar Network and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Facebook will not have any right to review or approve research findings prior to publication, and the scholars will be tasked with:

  • Defining the research agenda: Questions to be addressed will include, “Will Facebook’s current product roadmap effectively fight the spread of misinformation and foreign interference?” Specific topics may include misinformation; polarizing content; promoting freedom of expression and association; protecting domestic elections from foreign interference; and civic engagement. Schrage and Ginsberg wrote, “Commission members will learn about Facebook’s internal efforts related to elections and source input from the academic community to determine the most important unanswered research questions. They will also begin to work with international experts to develop research evaluating Facebook’s impact in upcoming elections—with the goal of identifying and mitigating possible negative effects.”
  • Soliciting proposals for independent research on a range of different topics: “Respected academic experts” will form a commission to develop requests for research proposals. Selected scholars will receive funding for their research, as well as access to privacy-protected datasets from Facebook, which they can analyze.
  • Independent and transparent reporting: Schrage and Ginsberg wrote, “Facebook and the foundations funding this project are committed to transparency around the rationale for the structure and membership of the commission. Once established, the commission will have the authority to regularly report on its activities and Facebook’s. This will include the decision-making criteria guiding both the research agenda and scholar selection.”

Schrage and Ginsberg outlined the steps Facebook will take to ensure the privacy of users’ data: “Any proposal submitted through this process must first have been reviewed by a university institutional review board or the international equivalent. And when Facebook data is requested, proposals will be subject to additional review by Facebook’s privacy and research review teams, as well as external privacy experts that the commission identifies. These reviews will help ensure that Facebook acts in accordance with its legal and ethical obligations to the people who use our service, as well as the academic and ethical integrity of the research process.”

The two Facebook executives credited Gary King of Harvard University and Nate Persily of Stanford Law School with developing the academic collaboration model being used in this effort, and they wrote, “Facebook plays an important role in elections around the world, helping people connect and discuss the important issues of the day. We were slow to spot foreign interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, as well as issues with fake accounts and fake news. Our teams have made good progress since then. By working with the academic community, we can help people better understand the broader impact of social media on democracy, as well as improve our work to protect the integrity of elections.”

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