Facebook to open up its data for research on social media and elections

A commission of experts will devise a research agenda and select proposals.

Facebook announced a new initiative today aimed at improving its policies and the role its platform plays in elections. The company acknowledged that it was slow to respond to election interference efforts that took place on its site and says it wants to learn more about social media's role in elections around the world. To do that, it's putting together a group of researchers that will then develop a research plan, get proposals for projects that address issues defined in its plan and manage a peer review process that will determine who will receive funding and access to Facebook data for their research.

The commission of experts will initially work for one year and Facebook says membership will be determined soon. It's looking to form a group that's diverse in its political views, expertise, gender, ethnicity and nationality. Once the research agenda, which can include topics such as misinformation, polarizing content, civic engagement and protection of domestic elections from foreign interference, is defined, the commission will solicit research proposals, the peer review for which will be overseen by the Social Science Research Council.

Those proposals selected to receive Facebook data will undergo additional scrutiny by Facebook's privacy and research review teams as well as external privacy experts. And any reported data will be aggregated and anonymized. The commission will be able to continuously provide the public with information on its processes as well as Facebook's and any research published in academic journals will not be subject to approval by Facebook.

Facebook has been keen to address privacy issues and election interference ever since the Cambridge Analytica scandal came to light. It has so far made a number of changes to how it manages users' data and made efforts to ensure that its processes and policies are more understandable than they have been in the past.

"By working with the academic community, we can help people better understand the broader impact of social media on democracy -- as well as improve our work to protect the integrity of elections," said Facebook. Those funding the selected research proposals include the John and Laura Arnold Foundation, Democracy Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, the Omidyar Network and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.