Facebook Democracy Research Impeded by Privacy Issues
A research project that was created for the purpose of allowing independents scientists to have access to Facebook data has had a major obstacle with the issue of privacy. The project aimed to show how social media affects democracies and to also create a model that will allow researchers to make use of the vast collection of data available in tech companies. Facebook has not been able to provide scientists with all they data they need and that has been promised to them due to privacy issues and there is no certain time when the data will be made available. Facebook was able to give some of the data promised to researchers but releasing some of the more detailed and delicate data without violating the privacy of the users is proving difficult than what was expected.
Recently, academic researchers have been interested in getting data from huge tech companies such as Facebook so as to study how misinformation on social media affects political actions globally. This research initiative, Social Science Research Council (SSRC) that is based in the US in conjunction with Facebook has through some funders, funded 12 projects that were created to research different areas like usage of social media in the recently conducted elections such as in Germany, Italy and Chile and also how fake news spread on social media but choosing which projects got funding was not Facebook’s doing.
In August 2019, the funders wrote a letter to SSRC stating that they will close the projects unless Facebook can provide important data set by September 30. The funders said Facebook was not able to give the data or state exactly when the data will be made available. These funders have been able to provide 600,000 US dollars for this programme called Social Media and Democracy Research Grants programme state that it is not appropriate for the researchers to continue looking for money to keep up the research when data was not forthcoming and no one knows when it will be. President of one of the funding charities, Larry Kramer of the Hewlett Foundation, has said the structure of the programme is complicated has there are different entities to provide grants and also to provide data access.
Facebook has said it will continue sharing data with academics even if these funders and initiative should withdraw. After the statement’s release, a new set of data was also released but not the whole data that was promised. A spokesperson for Facebook said ‘’This is one of the largest sets of links ever to be created for academic research on this topic. We are working hard to deliver on additional demographic fields while safeguarding individual people’s privacy’’
Some researchers have said the data shared by Facebook has being ‘’more or less useless’’ for their projects while others have said the data shared with them will enable them to achieve some of the goals of their projects.
After the passage of the deadline given to Facebook, Hewlett Foundation has said the funders are working together to figure out the next point of action and to know which of research proposals that were approved initially can be completed. They have said that researchers that have gotten money already will not be asked to refund it and those that can finish their research with the data available will still be getting funds.
Facebook also conducts its own research to determine the effect of information shared on the medium. Academic researchers want to be able to carry out researches that will not be evaluated by the tech company. Meanwhile, Facebook users only permit the company to process their data and not to separate third parties, this has led to the creation of a ‘’data broker’’ called Social Science One that is like a ‘’trusted’’ third party. The organization behaves like an insider in Facebook, it picks out important data sets for researchers so that they can rely on what they have gotten and also have academic independence.
Some other partners of Facebook that have worked with the company for over a year said they will continue building a way for Facebook to share data with researchers regardless of what the funders decide to do. The co-founder of Social Science One, that serves as a ‘’data-broker’’ between Facebook and researchers, Gary King, who is also a social scientist at Harvard University, has said the partners will still release data sets in weeks to come and that Facebook has put more than 30 people to work on the project. King said ‘’to learn about societies, we must go to where the data are… Although more social-science data exist than ever before, most are tied up in companies and are inaccessible to researchers’’. He also said that the model been worked on by his team is the only feasible model that can be achieved for future alliance with huge tech companies and it also finds solution to the problem of obtaining important data from these companies while they also protect the privacy of their users.