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Researchers to Put Facebook’s Role in Elections Under Magnifying Glass

A group of nonprofits on Monday announced they would fund an initiative to study Facebook’s role in elections and democracy.

The organizations will pay the expenses of researchers whose projects are accepted for the initiative, and Facebook will give the scholars access to proprietary data that has met the company’s new standards for heightened user privacy protection.

The organizations did not specify the amount of funds they plan to provide.

“This is a critical first step toward a deeper understanding of how social media is used to sow distrust and spread disinformation that threatens American democracy — and what we, as a society, can do about it to create a healthier discourse,” said Larry Kramer, president of the Hewlett Foundation.

Along with Hewlett, participants include the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, the Democracy Fund, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, and the Omidyar Network.

“This agreement between Facebook, academia and charitable funders will help fill important research gaps that are inhibiting our ability to realize the benefits of social media while managing its drawbacks,” noted Kelly Born, the program officer at Hewlett’s U.S. democracy initiative.

New Partnership Model

The initiative is an important new model for partnerships between industry and academia, wrote Facebook’s Elliot Schrage, vice president of communications and public policy, and David Ginsberg, director of research, in an online post.

It’s also a way for Facebook to learn more about how it can be used to manipulate and deceive, they pointed out.

“This could potentially better educate Facebook on how serious the impact of their platform is on influencing elections around the world,” said Brian Martin, director of vulnerability intelligence at Risk Based Security.

Further, it could “give them ideas on helping to improve the integrity of their platform,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Facebook has taken steps to fight fake news and foreign interference in some countries’ elections, said Schrage and Ginsberg, but they acknowledged there’s much more to do.

“This initiative will enable Facebook to learn from the advice and analysis of outside experts so we can make better decisions — and faster progress,” they wrote.

Fair and nonpartisan research into the influence of anything on our electoral process, especially social media, isn’t just important, but necessary for our democracy, maintained Verodin CISO Brian Contos.

“Facebook is at the core of much of this discussion and controversy. Certainly, they have unique insights and, as we all know, tons of data they can analyze,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“With this research, Facebook has a great opportunity to prove their integrity to the world,” Contos said, “or remain, in the eyes of some people, the villain.”

Protecting Shared Data

Technology can be a massive force for good, but there are unintended consequences, including the effect of social media on democracy and elections, observed Paula Goldman, global lead for the tech and society solutions lab of the Omidyar Network.

“It will be very hard to find solutions to those problems without data,” she told TechNewsWorld.

“Up to now, that data has been locked in a vault,” Goldman said. “This effort is an important first step forward, because it gives access to data to independent researchers so they can make sense of what’s really going on.”

Sharing data is a touchy subject at Facebook in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica affair, but the company believes it can protect the privacy and security of any data it shares with the initiative’s researchers.

Any requests for Facebook data will be examined by the company’s privacy and research review teams, as well as external privacy experts.

Data Access ‘Incredibly Important’

Facebook has built a dedicated team to work with the commission, overseeing the research. Academic researchers will develop approved, privacy-protected datasets that will be kept exclusively on Facebook’s global network of secure servers and subject to continuous audit.

“I have high confidence that the way data will be accessible is going to be closely managed,” Tom Glaisyer, managing director of the Democracy Fund’s Public Square Program, told TechNewsWorld.

Ensuring that independent researchers can have access to Facebook data is incredibly important, said Joseph W. Jerome, policy counsel for the Center for Democracy & Technology.

“Researchers have really led the way in showing how online platforms can be abused, biased or simply insecure,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Achieving the right balance in the composition of the panel that makes key decisions about what research gets funded could be challenging, Jerome suggested.

“It will be important for the reviewing committee to have a diversity of views and be sufficiently independent,” he said. “It will also be interesting to see how broad this research initiative goes. The use of social media to target vulnerable communities has impacts far outside narrowly defined elections and campaign seasons.”

Serious Research or PR?

Attracting the right participants to the initiative will be important to its success, noted Tellagraff CEO Mark Graff.

“This a promising development,” he told TechNewsWorld. “If they get the right people who can delve into the issues, then it’s a good idea.” he said.

At this point, the value of the initiative is still unclear, according to James Scott, a senior fellow at the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology.

“It may be a serious effort to initialize serious research into misinformation, propaganda and influence operations,” he told TechNewsWorld. “It could just as easily be a token gesture to garner positive PR at a time when users, including many prominent figures and companies, are deleting their accounts on the platform.”

There are no guarantees that Facebook will act on any of the research, Scott pointed out.

“If a particular study suggests action that impedes Facebook’s profits, it could choose to ignore the study after publication,” he observed. “Average users are not likely to pay attention to the research conducted through this initiative.”

John P. Mello Jr.

John P. Mello Jr. has been an ECT News Network reportersince 2003. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, IT issues, privacy, e-commerce, social media, artificial intelligence, big data and consumer electronics. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including the Boston Business Journal, theBoston Phoenix, Megapixel.Net and GovernmentSecurity News. Email John.

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