Facebook Opens Up Data for Election Research

July 16, 2018 - 3 minutes read

Facebook’s recent involvement with London-based analytics firm Cambridge Analytica revolved around the 2016 Presidential election in the U.S. The controversy surfaced after it came to light that a developer sold data from his Facebook quiz app to Cambridge Analytica.

Instead of plugging the data leak and fixing the problem at its root, Facebook recently opted to just release the data for all researchers to use. In this way, no “privileged” party has access to data — everyone does… sort of. Is this going to help Facebook combat more data abuse problems? Probably not, but the company believes it’s a good first step.

Opening the Floodgates

The new public dataset lets interested parties study all of the links users have shared on Facebook. The company partnered with Social Science One, a company that wants to form partnerships between academic researchers and private industries.

The database of all public links shared on the platform will include everything starting from January 2017. The data isn’t just flat; it’s multi-dimensional, containing information on how many times the link was clicked, where it was shared (on a person’s wall versus in a group), how often it was flagged, whether the link was approved as “credible news”, and when and how the link was vetted by the company’s fact-checkers. This is the type of data that both developers and analysts can derive endless conclusions from.

Facebook plans to keep this data updated; this means the database will grow by 2 million new, unique URLs from more than 300 million posts weekly. “It’s an overwhelming data set for people interested in social media and democracy,” says Nathaniel Persily, who is the commission co-chair.

For Science!

The dataset isn’t publicly accessible; in other words, not just anyone can navigate to it. You must ask for permission by submitting a specific research proposal, which will go through anonymous peer review and an institutional review board. Facebook promised not to review research before its published, so they won’t be doing any other gatekeeping other than the initial checks.

Facebook is one of the biggest social media platforms, owning other large platforms like Instagram and WhatsApp. Recently, a privacy regulator in the United Kingdom fined Facebook the maximum fine due to the data scandal with Cambridge Analytica.

The company opened the request for proposals for social scientists to submit ideas and proposals on how they plan to use the dataset for research. “Social scientists have the tools to find this out, but we need the data, or no one will ever really know,” says Gary King, a Harvard professor who co-chairs the new commission.

How do you feel about this recent move by Facebook?

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