Facebook accused of derailing study into how it affects democracy

Researchers claim failure to get promised data makes work impossible

Andrew Griffin
Wednesday 28 August 2019 13:55
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The Facebook logo is displayed during the F8 Facebook Developers conference on April 30, 2019 in San Jose, California
The Facebook logo is displayed during the F8 Facebook Developers conference on April 30, 2019 in San Jose, California

Facebook has been accused of derailing a study that aimed to find out how it affects elections.

The company initially launched a project, alongside a group of organisations, that would see researchers try and understand the social network's impact on democracy.

But the researchers working on the study have now threatened to quit. They say that Facebook is failing to provide the data needed to understand whether it has had a damaging effect on politiics, despite pledging to make that information available.

The funders of the project said in a statement that Facebook had granted the 83 scholars selected for the project access to "only a portion of what they were told they could expect," which made it impossible for some to carry out their research. They have given Facebook until Sept. 30 to provide the data.

Their concerns focus on the absence of data that would show which web pages were shared on Facebook as far back as January 2017.

The company had yet to say when the data would be made available, the funders added.

Facebook said in a statement that it remained committed to the project and would "continue to provide access to data and tooling to all grant recipients - current and future."

The announcement comes only a few months after Facebook launched the research program, which opened the company's propriety data to independent scholars for the first time.

Data access was meant to be heavily controlled, with special precautions to protect user privacy.

The funding consortium includes both the conservative Charles Koch Foundation and Silicon Valley's Omidyar Network.

"We hope Facebook (not to mention other platform companies) will find a way to provide deeply robust privacy-protected data," they said, as "independent scholarly analysis of social media platforms is essential" to understanding elections and democracy around the world.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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