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Facebook gives more away data, but this time it's good

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One reason the world was caught unawares by the rise of misinformation on Facebook is that no one cou
 
July 11 · Issue #162 · View online
The Interface
One reason the world was caught unawares by the rise of misinformation on Facebook is that no one could see inside it as it happened. The company’s walled garden has generally been off limits to researchers, and what research has been done on Facebook has often been unsettling. My colleague Russell Brandom wrote about the issue in March:
That’s particularly urgent because Facebook is facing serious questions about its impact on society, and we have no data to tell us which concerns are important. Earlier this week, UN officials said Facebook played a role in a possible genocide against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar — a horrifying charge, if true. It would be immensely valuable to track how anti-Rohingya sentiment actually spread on the platform. The results might exonerate Facebook or point toward specific changes the platform could make to address the problem. As it stands, we simply have nowhere to begin.
The day after Russell published his piece, Facebook was hit with the biggest research-related scandal in its history. Revelations that Cambridge Analytica had illicitly obtained user data from an academic researcher roiled the company, and this week resulted in the maximum possible fine from the UK Information Commissioner’s Office. 
It is, in other words, a terrible time for researchers to be making the case for expanded access to Facebook user data. And yet failing to work with researchers would pose risks of its own: allowing new threats to fester inside the user base, putting the onus of understanding and stopping them entirely on Facebook.
And so the company made a bold move: even as federal investigations into the Cambridge Analytica scandal continue, Facebook agreed to provide researchers with a petabyte of information about which stories users click on. Here’s Karen Weise in Bloomberg:
The data – amounting to 1 million gigabytes – will include almost all public URLs Facebook users globally have clicked on in the past year, including stories third-party fact checkers have deemed false, according to Harvard University political science professor Gary King, who is co-chairman of the effort. The data also includes demographic details of those who engaged with the links, such as the age, gender, ideological affiliation of users as well as their friends, and on their behaviors, such as whether they shared the link without opening it, or if they used a happy or sad face to comment on it.
It’s the first test of the research group, now named Social Science One, which tries to give more academic access to the social network’s data by balancing privacy and proprietary needs with independence for scholars to publish whatever they find. Social Science One’s structure for the Facebook research involves a new “commission” with a dozen committees, an outside academic council that will decide which researchers will be awarded projects, and seven independent U.S. foundations to fund the work. None of the studies will be paid for by Menlo Park, California-based Facebook. The names of the committees indicate future research topics may include political advertising, civic engagement and polarization.
The obvious question is how Facebook will prevent researchers from pulling an Aleksandr Kogan. Robbie Gonzalez has some details in Wired:
We’ve got a broad, globally distributed, and diverse set of top-tier data scientists who are starting as peer reviewers,“ says SSRC president Alondra Nelson. The initial review process, if all goes as planned, with take roughly six weeks. After that comes a month of training researchers in how to access Facebook’s data securely. Then come the actual studies, which could take anywhere from days to years to complete.
If the application process is easier than researchers are accustomed to, the review process will be tougher for King and the various subcommittees of Social Science One. With the help of the SSRC, the commission will conduct additional reviews for ethics and privacy, to avoid any Cambridge Analytica–style fiascos. Any scientist seeking access to money or data will need to pass not only the standard review protocols of their home institutions, but a second, special review conducted by specialists specifically appointed by Social Science One.
Wired makes clear that this is a major undertaking that will require significant resources on Facebook’s part. That the company agreed to it in the immediate aftermath of Cambridge Analytica is a powerful testament to how seriously it takes issues surrounding misinformation. (I would love to have heard the internal debates over whether, and then how, to participate.)
Results of the research likely won’t be publicly available for months. It’s hard to imagine that lessons drawn from the findings could be implemented before November’s midterm elections in the United States. But on the whole it’s a heartening development.

Democracy
Findings, recommendations and actions from ICO investigation into data analytics in political campaigns
FCC Proposes Changing Comment System After WSJ Found Thousands of Fakes
Twitter follower counts drop after a change in how they are counted
Facebook Gave Russian Internet Giant Special Data Extension
As Feinstein Questioned Zuckerberg, an Undisclosed Investment in Facebook
Elsewhere
Facebook will launch news video initiative next week
Facebook sets a new task for AI: guide a virtual tourist around New York
Georgia Law Discourages Any Smartphone Use by Drivers
Timehop’s data breach included more personal user information than originally announced
Sex, Beer, and Coding: Inside Facebook’s Wild Early Days in Palo Alto
Launches
YouTube launches new tool for finding and removing unauthorized re-uploads
Twitter lets advertisers ‘take over’ the Explore tab
Pinterest is adding a way for users to collaborate on boards
Takes
Cory Doctorow: Zuck’s Empire of Oily Rags
And finally ...
Facebook labels Russian users as ‘interested in treason’
Talk to me
Questions? Comments? casey@theverge.com
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