An independent research initiative that Facebook Inc announced in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal is launching its first study, offering scholars access to a petabyte of anonymised user data to understand the role of misinformation in elections.
The data – amounting to 1 million gigabytes – will include almost all public URLs Facebook users globally have clicked on in the past year, including stories third-party fact checkers have deemed false, according to Harvard University political science professor Gary King, who is co-chairman of the effort.
The data also includes demographic details of those who engaged with the links, such as the age, gender, ideological affiliation of users as well as their friends, and on their behaviours, such as whether they shared the link without opening it, or if they used a happy or sad face to comment on it.
It’s the first test of the research group, now named Social Science One, which tries to give more academic access to the social network’s data by balancing privacy and proprietary needs with independence for scholars to publish whatever they find. Social Science One’s structure for the Facebook research involves a new “commission” with a dozen committees, an outside academic council that will decide which researchers will be awarded projects, and seven independent US foundations to fund the work.
None of the studies will be paid for by Menlo Park, California-based Facebook. The names of the committees indicate future research topics may include political advertising, civic engagement and polarisation.
Facebook has for years worked with academic researchers looking to understand its role in society, but has been torn about the risks of external scrutiny. While it has provided some scholars unrestricted grants, Facebook in the past has maintained some control over what became public by pairing academics with in-house researchers and requiring pre-publication review of papers.
The spread of misinformation during the 2016 US presidential election, along with the scandal in which political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica obtained data from as many as 87 million US Facebook users, increased pressure on the company to let independent academics look under its hood. In April, the company announced the new research initiative, which was developed by King and Stanford University law professor Nathaniel Persily. — Bloomberg