Frequently Asked Questions

Is Social Science One related to Crimson Hexagon?

Social Science One is not affiliated with Crimson Hexagon. Gary King, co-chair of Social Science One, co-founded Crimson Hexagon, a social media analytics company, based on his research at Harvard University. Previously, he was chair of the Crimson Hexagon Board of Directors, but the company and Brandwatch have now merged (the new company has taken the name Brandwatch) and he is a Board Observer at the new company. Facebook recently looked into Crimson Hexagon’s social media data collection practices and customers, found that they adhere to all of Facebook’s policies, and still regularly work with the company. Crimson Hexagon, and now Brandwatch, only collects publicly available social media posts, does not collect any private social media posts, and only contracts with governments on Freedom House’s list of “free” countries.

What is unique about Social Science One’s approach?

Using company data in a way that respects the scientific process requires that individual 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) privileged access to appropriate portions of 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 forego publication and outside academics with complete freedom to publish – solves this problem. This is described in the paper at GaryKing.org/partnerships.

What's "the Commission"?

"The commission" is the "trusted third party mentioned above”  In the case of the Facebook partnership, the commission 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, with only the most restrictive of which has privileged 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 to the necessary datasets and information at Facebook needed to conduct research. The decision-making structure ensures that "the commission" can access whatever information it needs without unduly 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.

 

How will Social Science One touch the lives of everyday people, society at large?

Social Science One brings the efforts and talents of the scientific community to the table in studying some of the greatest challenges in modern times. In the case of the Facebook partnership, 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 (either ourselves or by sharing insights in order that others can follow this model). We hope this enables the academic community to address some of the many other important challenges that affect humanity, including public health, medicine, wellbeing, friendship, and many others.

 

How will individuals’ privacy be protected when companies share data?

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, more precautions will be put in place. For example, researchers may need to develop analysis code based on a synthetic data set and submit the code for automated (or manual) execution. We have been involved in highly intensive and extensive work covering privacy, security, legal, regulatory, technical, statistical, archival, computational, financial, and other components to make all this possible.

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.

After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, why share sensitive data with academics?

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.

 

Will nonprofit funding be the standard for all research organized under Social Science One?

The structure of diverse nonprofit philanthropic foundations pooling their funding and regranting from SSRC was especially helpful for the Facebook partnership because the topic area – the effects of social media on elections and democracy – is among the most sensitive and highly charged partisan issue areas. As such, Social Science One and SSRC have financial independence from Facebook and decision-making independence from both Facebook and any one foundation.

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.

 

Where's the Election Commission, the Election Research Commission, the Research Commission, the thing Facebook is doing with academics, etc.?

The organization now called Social Science One was first announced on April 9, 2018 when A New Model of Industry-Academic Partnerships was released. Our effort has been referred to by these and other names by Facebook and us all along the way.  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 this effort "Social Science One".

The "commission" is a group of academics inside SS1 dedicated to this project.

Is Social Science One independent of Facebook?

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.

Facebook will pay for its own expenses, including the cost of making data available, the cost of securing that data, and the Facebook staff necessary for this project.

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.