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Independent Research Commission Makes Facebook Data Available for Academic Study

Facebook displayed on a laptop screen

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Social Science One, an independent research commission formed to give scholars a way to conduct research about private industry data, is kicking off its first project: analyzing Facebook data to better understand the role of social media on elections and democracy. The organization comes out of an initiative Facebook announced in April in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, to make its data available for academic research while protecting the privacy of its users.

"The data collected by private companies has vast potential to help social scientists understand and solve society's greatest challenges," explained Gary King, co-founder of Social Science One, Facebook partnership co-chair, Albert J. Weatherhead III University Professor at Harvard University and director of Harvard's Institute for Quantitative Social Science, in a statement. "But until now that data has typically been unavailable for academic research. Social Science One has established an ethical structure for marshalling privacy preserving industry data for the greater social good while ensuring full academic publishing freedom."

Social Science One's partnership with Facebook gives the commission full access to the company's proprietary data as a trusted third party. The organization identifies anonymized data sets to be used for research and issues a formal request for proposals. Through a peer review process administered by the Social Science Research Council, outside academics requesting access are then cleared to receive the data, research funding and other services. Researchers are free to publish their findings without prior review by Facebook.

The first data set available for research, for example, includes public URLS that Facebook users globally have clicked on (including many deemed "fake news" stories by third-party fact checkers), when they clicked and what types of people they are — totaling about one petabyte of data, according to a news announcement. Future data sets include a survey on elections in Mexico and an archive of political ads on Facebook and Instagram.

Privacy is "fundamental to this entire effort," as Facebook noted in a company statement announcing the initiative in April. "Facebook and our funding partners recognize the threat presented by the recent misuse of Facebook data, including by an academic associated with Cambridge Analytica. At the same time, we believe strongly that the public interest is best served when independent researchers have access to information. And we believe that we can achieve this goal while ensuring that privacy is preserved and information kept secure."

Research funding comes from 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.

For more information, visit the Social Science One site.

About the Author

Rhea Kelly is editor in chief for Campus Technology, THE Journal, and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected].

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