Facebook receives deadline to provide researchers with data
In April 2018, Facebook announced plans for a new initiative aiming to provide independent, credible research about the role of social media in elections and democracy.
A partnership with Social Science One a research entity set up by Harvard and Stanford academics to facilitate data sharing was established, and Facebook promised other major initiatives following concerns about election interference, platform manipulation and data breaches.
Social Science One announced the first batch of winning proposals from independent researchers in April 2019. However, four months later, some academic teams are still waiting on Facebook to provide the data needed to conduct these studies.
On 22 August, Buzzfeed reported on the frustrations of the academics, researchers and foundations involved. Buzzfeed journalist Craig Silverman wrote: “Despite the company’s ambitions, these transparency initiatives suffer from a pattern of delays, incomplete features, and frayed relations with partners.”
In response, Facebook has acknowledged that some of the data promised to researchers will not be delivered. The company cited concerns about privacy, security and the need to comply with legislation such as GDPR.
Less than a week after Buzzfeed’s article was published, researchers told the publication that they have set a deadline for Facebook to provide them with the data they need to conduct their research.
In an official statement, the Social Science Research Council (one of the non-profits working on the project) said that if Facebook does not deliver the data by the end of September, a consortium of funders may pull their support from the project.
“If Facebook is unable to deliver the originally specified data by 30 September, then the consortium has recommended winding down the project,” it said.
Contributors to the consortium include the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, the Democracy Fund, the Omidyar Network and the Charles Koch Foundation.
Social Science One and Facebook responded to the deadline threat together, saying: “Researchers currently in the programme will continue to receive support and Facebook will continue to provide access to data and tooling to all grant recipients current and future.
“We will provide data access to researchers who have not received financial awards through the standard Social Science One RFP processes. Additionally, in partnership with Social Science One, Facebook will continue to make more data available in a secure, privacy-protective manner.”
The company said that datasets have been shared with more than 60 researchers so far across 17 labs in 30 universities around the world.
Concluding the statement, Facebook said: “In the coming weeks and months, Facebook and Social Science One will continue working collaboratively to identify valuable privacy protective datasets across a wide range of areas related to elections and democracy.”