Foundations Step In To Assess Facebook Damage

April 9, 2018       Andy Segedin      

Facebook has been under fire in recent months as reports continue to surface concerning how the social-media platform was used to spread disinformation and influence recent elections, including the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. A consortium of American foundations announced on Monday that they will support research directed at assessing the damage, understanding Facebook’s role in elections, and helping carve a path forward.

The effort will be spearheaded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Charles Koch Foundation, Democracy Fund, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Laura and John Arnold Foundation, and Omidyar Network. Facebook has agreed to grant a committee of independent scholars, funded by the consortium, access to proprietary data that has met the company’s new heightened user security standards.

The committee will define research topics and invite the broader scholarly community to submit research proposals related to social media, elections, and democracy, also at the expense of the consortium.

A Hewlett Foundation spokesperson said that estimated total investment from the funders is not yet known and will be based on the research proposals that flow in. Areas of interest among the foundations’ leaders include broad issues of civic engagement and democracy. The spokesperson said that Hewlett Foundation, specifically, has taken an interest in recent years in the nature and extent of political polarization and disinformation across digital channels.

The research project comes on the heels of considerable controversy for the social-media giant. It was revealed in March that the data of about 87 million users, including 70 million Americans, was compromised and fell into the hands of Cambridge Analytica, a UK-based political consulting firm. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has publicly apologized and met with members of Congress on Monday, though calls for his resignation have continued. A #DeleteFacebook movement has surfaced on social media with prominent tech backers including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton and Elon Musk, who has deleted the Facebook pages of both Tesla and SpaceX.

“This agreement between Facebook, academia, and charitable funders will help fill important research gaps that are inhibiting our ability to realize the benefits of social media while managing its drawbacks,” said Kelly Born, the program officer at the Hewlett Foundation’s U.S. democracy initiative who is leading Hewlett’s work on disinformation, in a foundation release. “But it is just one piece of what is needed. We also need scholarly access to data from other platforms, with essential protections for user privacy, to help answer critical questions being asked of all tech leaders by the public and policymakers: What are citizens exposed to online, how does that affect democracy, and what can be done to improve it?”

The to-be-named committee will prioritize research questions and oversee publication. The peer-review process and proposal selection will be managed by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), an independent, international nonprofit focused on advancing nonpartisan research. Beyond the research initiative, Hewlett Foundation leadership intends on supporting experimental research geared toward evaluating potential solutions to the challenges identified by the data, including ethical, legal, and technical considerations.

Alondra Nelson, president of SSRC, said in an email that the funders and Facebook have reached an initial one-year commitment for the project. The next step will be to convene the steering committee to develop a research agenda. Once the agenda is set, a public request for proposals will be made. Nelson anticipates that the committee will provide regular public updates on both its and Facebook’s activities, including research agenda and the selection of researchers.

An exact timeframe for the project has not yet been determined, according to Nelson, but the intention is to begin work as soon as possible. When asked about concerns Facebook users might have about additional third-parties having access to data, Nelson said that researchers will only have access to anonymized data and that the project will comply with academic research standards.

SSRC-appointed review committees will actively engage with technologists, advocates, and ethicists to develop 21st century academic standards for anonymized digital data use — with particular emphasis on the potential impacts on vulnerable groups by the dynamics the initiative studies,” wrote Nelson.

The NonProfit Times will be holding a live webinar on April 19 to help nonprofit leaders assess the potential damage to organizations where the information of donors and advocates was improperly farmed and used by data firms through the Facebook platform. Information regarding that webinar can be found at https://bit.ly/2GJRn6S 

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  • Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
  • Charles Koch Foundation
  • Democracy Fund
  • Facebook
  • John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
  • Laura and John Arnold Foundation
  • Omidyar Network
  • William and Flora Hewlett Foundation