Facebook opens elections data to academic research

"This initiative will deepen our work with universities around the world as we continue to improve our ability to address current threats and anticipate new ones."

May 2, 2019 01:29
2 minute read.
Facebook opens elections data to academic research

Facebook logo is reflected in glasses in this picture illustration taken April 1, 2019. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Facebook will provide researchers with access to billions of privacy-protected data items to study the influence of social media on democracy, including the networking giant’s role in Israel’s April 9 general elections.

Over 60 independent researchers from 30 academic institutions in 11 countries were chosen by the Social Science Research Council and Social Science One to analyze the data, and will benefit from funding provided by eight charitable foundations.

“We hope this initiative will deepen public understanding of the role social media has on elections and democracy and help Facebook and other companies improve their products and practices,” said Elliot Schrage, Facebook vice president for special projects, and Chaya Nayak, strategic initiatives manager, in a statement on Monday.

“This initiative will deepen our work with universities around the world as we continue to improve our ability to address current threats and anticipate new ones.”

Researchers at institutions including New York University, Sciences Po and National Chengchi University will gain access to some data immediately, and other data sets at a later stage once they meet appropriate privacy and legal standards.

Through a unique data sharing infrastructure, researchers will be able to access Facebook data obtained via Crowdtangle, a content discovery and social monitoring platform for publishers and brands. Through Crowdtangle, access will be granted to 6.9 billion Facebook page posts, 1.2 billion group posts, 11.2 million verified profile posts and 1.6 billion Instagram posts.

Facebook will also grant access to its Ad Library application programming interface (API) to enable the analysis of political advertising data. The library includes information about $539,861,997 spent on 3,259,272 ads related to politics or issues in the US since May 2018 and smaller numbers of ads in Israel, India, the European Union, United Kingdom, Ukraine and Brazil.

“Over the past two years, we have made significant improvements in how we monitor for and take action against abuse on our platform,” said Schrage and Nayak.

“We know we can’t do this work alone, and much of the progress we have made is due to significant support from external partners, including governments, civil society groups, NGOs, other private sector companies and academics.”

In January, amid warnings of foreign interference in Israel’s April election, Facebook announced it would be launching political advertising transparency tools to prevent foreign and non-political actors from unfairly influencing the elections.

The tools, also rolled out for the US mid-terms and elections in Nigeria, India and Ukraine, disallow electoral ads purchased from outside the country. Under new rules introduced by Facebook, advertisers require authorization to purchase political ads and users will be granted more insight into the origin of election-related promotions.

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