Launched in April 2018, the first Social Science One partnership focuses on the effect of social media on democracy and elections, with access to Facebook data.
The longstanding study of media effects on democracy and elections has taken on new resonance with the rise of social media platforms, the dramatic change in the business model of traditional news media, changes in advertising infrastructure, and increasingly globalized and interconnected communications. Recent revelations about the unintended disclosure of industry data and spread of disinformation across national borders make clear the need to better understand the impact of social media on society.
Our Facebook partnership, which is in collaboration with the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), will study the impact of social media on democracy and elections, generate insights to inform policy at the intersection of media, technology, and democracy, and advance new avenues for future research. We expect this research scope to expand over time. The initiative seeks to study these processes in an independent, transparent, and ethical way according to the highest standards of data privacy and academic research, to improve the lives of all citizens.
From the perspective of the academic social sciences, this initiative seeks to provide privacy-preserving access to the largest and most comprehensive information base ever used to study social media, and even some of the most extensive data ever used to study human behavior in general.
Social Science One's initial project is funded by generous contributions from a group of seven ideologically diverse nonprofit foundations: The Laura and John Arnold Foundation, The Democracy Fund, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Charles Koch Foundation, Omidyar Network’s Tech and Society Solutions Lab, and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Funds from these organizations flow into a single pool at the SSRC, which then regrants the funds to researchers.
Facebook and our funding partners recognize the threat presented by the misuse of Facebook data, including by an academic associated with Cambridge Analytica. That is why the data made available for research by Social Science One is first reviewed and cleared by our commission members, external privacy experts, and Facebook’s privacy and research review teams. These reviews help ensure that Facebook acts in accordance with its legal and ethical obligations to the people it serves, as well as ensuring the academic and ethical integrity of the research process.
Facebook is working with our commission to prepare secure and privacy-preserving data access, including full auditing of what any one researcher does. This has involved an enormous amount of effort: creating entirely new systems for securely storing the data, incorporating cutting-edge differential privacy and other techniques, and building a dedicated team of specialists. Facebook has also agreed to relinquish rights to pre-publication approval of research results within the scope of the project.