Using company data in a way that respects the scientific process requires that academics have two assurances that have historically been difficult for industry to provide any one researcher simultaneously: (1) Complete freedom to publish without prior review by the company and (2) complete access to the company’s data, people, platforms, and processes. Social Science One’s two part structure – with a commission of distinguished academics as a trusted third party and outside academics having complete freedom to publish – solves this problem.
"The commission" is the "trusted third party". The commission in the Facebook partnership is composed of (a) Gary King and Nathaniel Persily as co-chairs, acting like editors of a scholarly journal and (b) other members, acting like members of the journal's editorial board, but organized into methodological, substantive, and regional committees. Different subsets of members (as needed, cross-cutting the committee structure) sign one of three levels of confidentiality agreement, only the most restrictive of which has full access to proprietary information at Facebook and, as a result, foregoes grant applications and publication without pre-approval.
The commission is a unified structure and so it (although not every one of its members) has full access at Facebook. The decision making structure ensures that "the commission" can access whatever information it needs without unduely burdening its members or creating a security risk by having every single member access proprietary or privileged information that they don't necessarily need for a particular decision or analysis. Similarly, every member of an editorial board does not read or have access to every privately submitted paper the journal receives.
The Social Science One initiative brings the efforts and talents of the scientific community to the table in studying one of the greatest challenges to democracy in modern times. We intend for the research initiated by Social Science One to improve the understanding and operation of elections and democracy in nations worldwide. The task ahead is vast, the questions are important, the potential advances large, and the range of knowledge that is possible significant.
We also plan to branch out to other subject areas and sources of data, so that we may be able to address some of the many other important challenges that affect humanity, including public health, medicine, well being, friendship, and many others.
For datasets that raise no legitimate privacy concerns, data may be released publicly or with minimal safeguards, such as highly aggregated data that is already released by technology firms. For more sensitive datasets, researchers may need to develop analysis code based on a synthetic data set and submit the code for automated (or manual) execution.
These procedures effectively change from a regime of individual responsibility, where scholars legally agree to follow the rules and the rest of the community hopes they comply, to one of collective responsibility, where multiple people are always checking and the risk of improper actions by any one individual is greatly limited.
While privacy concerns are certainly justified in the wake of recent revelations (after all, the Cambridge Analytica scandal began with misconduct by an academic), now is precisely the time to solve this problem in an effort to restore trust. Social Science One has developed a new organizational structure that protects users’ privacy, insulates the process from individual researchers violating the rules, and empowers independent academics to advance the general good in a way that all may benefit.
If no such structures are developed, both academics and society at large will be hampered in seeking answers to some of society’s most pressing challenges, including, most immediately, the impact that social media has on democracy and elections. Meanwhile, the private sector, which is already hesitant to provide transparency, will continue to face mistrust and suspicion.
The structure of seven diverse nonprofit philanthropic foundations pooling their funding and regranting from SSRC was especially helpful because our first topic area – the effects of social media on elections and democracy – is among the most sensitive, and highly charged partisan issue areas. Social Science One and SSRC thus have financial independence from Facebook, and decision making independence from both Facebook and any one foundation.
However, the private sector has considerably more revenue than even the extraordinary and generous nonprofit foundations participating in Social Science One activities. As a result, in less sensitive areas of research, and when appropriate, Social Science One may consider enabling private firms to fund research as well. Our two part structure, and other procedures we will put in place, will continue to fully insulate researchers from undue financial influence by those funding the research.
The effort now called Social Science One was first announced on April 9, 2018 when “A New Model of Industry-Academic Partnerships” was released (see Facebook press release). Our effort has been referred to by these and other names by Facebook and us all along the ways. Given the scope of our work at hand, which extends beyond the role that Facebook and social media plays in elections, we have officially named the project "Social Science One".
Facebook is committed to partnering with Social Science One to further the broader goal of studying the impact of social media on elections and democracy. Facebook is building a dedicated internal team to work with the commission, and academic researchers we approve, to prepare privacy-protected datasets and analytical tools with high security, including full auditing of what any one researcher does.
We have insulated the grant making and decision processes from financial incentives, with Facebook providing no funding for the independent academic experts. All funding will come from our diverse array of nonprofit foundations. Facebook has also relinquished its right to pre-publication approval. If Facebook prevents Social Science One from obtaining any relevant data for research, the commission has the legal right, and indeed the obligation, to report this publicly.
Social Science One attempts to span the differing interests of academics, the private sector, and the general public in an incentive compatible way for all. Getting this partnership started required delicate and extremely extensive logistics, legal agreements, organization, negotiations, and processes that we continue to improve. We will now communicate in a more continuous fashion from here on now that we have launched Social Science One.
Facebook and seven ideologically diverse nonprofit foundations together chose Gary King and Nathaniel Persily as co-chairs and then the co-chairs chose other members. King and Persily developed the model that led to this partnership, and each have long-standing reputations as nonpartisan, distinguished academic researchers. See GaryKing.org and Persily.com for more information.