Researchers Were Selected in a Facebook-Led Initiative to Study Social Media’s Impact on Elections

The company is partnering with Social Science One and the Social Science Research Council

Researchers can only access the data through a secure portal that uses both two-factor authentication and a VPN
Laurence Dutton/iStock

Facebook unveiled an initiative last April to enable scholars to analyze the impact of social media on elections, giving them access to privacy-protected Facebook data. The social network and its partners—Social Science One and the Social Science Research Council—revealed the list of researchers who were chosen to participate Monday.

The complete list of over 60 researchers from 30 academic institutions across 11 countries can be found in these posts from the SSRC and Social Science One.

Funding is being provided 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, the Sloan Foundation and Children’s Investment Fund Foundation.

Facebook vice president for special projects Elliot Schrage and strategic initiatives manager Chaya Nayak stressed in a Newsroom post that Facebook played no part in selecting the researchers, nor will it direct their findings or conclusions.

They also outlined the steps Facebook is taking to make its privacy-protected data available to those researchers while ensuring that it does not fall into other hands.

Schrage and Nayak said the social network teamed up with Social Science One’s privacy committee and external privacy advisors on the data-sharing infrastructure for the project, adding that they “rigorously tested our infrastructure to make sure it is secure.”

Personally identifiable information was removed from the data sets, and Facebook is testing differential privacy, “which adds statistical noise to raw data sets to make sure an individual can’t be reidentified without affecting the reliability of the results.”

Differential privacy also puts a cap on the number of queries a researcher can run.

Researchers can only access the data through a secure portal that uses both two-factor authentication and a virtual private network.

Schrage and Nayak also outlined the data that will be made available to researchers.

The CrowdTangle application-programming interface will give researchers access to Facebook and Instagram data including posts from public pages, public groups and verified profiles.

The Ad Library API will provide data on Facebook ads related to politics or issues in the U.S., U.K., Brazil, India, Ukraine, Israel and the European Union. Facebook and Social Science One are also working to provide feedback on the API in order to make it more useful for research purposes.

And Facebook’s URL data set includes URLs that have been shared on the social network with public privacy settings by at least 100 unique users on average. Information includes the URL link, information on total shares, a text summary of content, engagement data (such as the top country where it was shared) and information on ratings from third-party fact-checkers.

All data in the URL data set will be aggregated and anonymized, and researchers will have to attend a training session in June prior to gaining access to it.

Schrage and Nayak wrote, “We hope this initiative will deepen public understanding of the role social media has on elections and democracy and help Facebook and other companies improve their products and practices. Over the past two years, we have made significant improvements in how we monitor for and take action against abuse on our platform. We know we can’t do this work alone, and much of the progress we have made is due to significant support from external partners, including governments, civil society groups, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), other private-sector companies and academics. This initiative will deepen our work with universities around the world as we continue to improve our ability to address current threats and anticipate new ones.”

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