Today Facebook announced a new initiative which will provide independent researchers access to Facebook data to study the impact the social network has on our elections and our democracy. Democracy Fund, along with the Omidyar Network, Hewlett Foundation and several other leading foundations have come together to support the research efforts that will be enabled through this program. We believe that independent funding of this research is critical, and hope that the program will help the public and policymakers better understand how Facebook is shaping our elections, social fabric, and democratic life.
This announcement comes amidst a firestorm of attention focused on the social media giant’s role in allowing vast amounts of personal data to be released, data which was then used to target shady and divisive political ads at Americans. Last week Facebook revealed that tens of thousands more people were affected by that breach than was first reported. As a foundation fundamentally concerned with the health of our democracy, we have been following this story closely.
In fact, Democracy Fund and the Omidyar Network have been raising the alarm about these issues for sometime. Late last year, the organizations published an in-depth paper asking, “Is Social Media a Threat to Democracy?” and identifying six ways in which digital platforms pose direct challenges to our democratic ideals. We have signed on to support this research initiative, but are realistic about the complexities and risks of supporting this effort and are approaching it as one part of a multipronged strategy to create a safer, stronger and more meaningful digital public square.
We are deeply committed to working on meaningful solutions that help rebuild trustworthy spaces for communities to connect, share information and participate in our democracy. We currently fund a range of efforts focused on combating hyper-partisanship, ensuring the integrity of our elections, and fostering a robust fourth estate locally and nationally.
Grantees like Prof. Zeynep Tufekci and ProPublica are doing powerful work on algorithmic accountability. Prof. Young Mie Kim tracked political ads on Facebook in 2016 and Politifact is helping sort truth from fiction on the platform. The German Marshall Fund is tracking Russian misinformation and Free Press is organization diverse communities around the rights to connect and communicate. The Center for Democracy and Technology is helping strengthen election cybersecurity, and spreading best practices for data privacy in voter registration databases and campaign data. Launched in 2017, the Social Science Research Center’s Media & Democracy program encourages academic research, practitioner reflection, and public debate on all aspects of the close relationship between media and democracy, including how changes in the political landscape, such as increasing polarization, have affected the media.
However, in our work with activists, organizations, and scholars in the field we have consistently heard that we can’t address what we don’t know. Through this new research effort Facebook says it will give researchers unpresented access to its data in ways it never has before. The research will be driven by a diverse coalition of scholars. Research projects will have to go through relevant university Institutional Review Board (IRB) reviews, will be rigorously peer reviewed, and may be vetted to ensure Facebook lives up to its legal and ethical commitments to users. Crucially, the research results themselves will not be subject to approval by Facebook
The emphasis of this first announcement is on Facebook’s role in elections, but the committee is also expected to address how Facebook’s systems influence viral deceptions, polarization, and civic engagement. Democracy Fund believes the American people must have effective ways to understand and be a part of the democratic process. As the internet transforms political life, it opens exciting new pathways for public engagement but has also created a fertile ground for abuse, harassment and manipulation that hurt our communities and our society. As this research is planned Democracy Fund will pay special attention to ensuring that the voices and the priorities of those disproportionately harmed by social media are included.
The flood of news about bad actors gaming the system have revealed a troubling disregard for the critical responsibility social media companies have had over our personal privacy and public debate. Facebook, and other platforms, need to acknowledge the oversized role they play in our society and truly prioritize privacy, embrace transparency, and accept accountability. We are realistic about the complexities here, but see this research partnership as a key step towards that goal. Through this program, and in separate endeavors, we are deeply committed to working on meaningful solutions that help rebuild trustworthy spaces for communities to connect, share information and participate in our democracy.