First project studying how Facebook affects elections runs into privacy concerns

Facebook’s first effort to open up its platform for academics to study its impact on elections has been thrown into doubt, after the social media group failed to hand over its data and cited privacy concerns.

In April 2018, Facebook announced it would hand over a petabyte, or a million gigabytes, of data including how people using its platforms had clicked on links to other websites, to an independent research group called Social Science One.

But last month, the funders of the project expressed frustration that Facebook had been “unable to deliver” all of the data that it promised, and set a deadline of this Monday, after which they recommended winding down the project.

While Facebook has since published a dataset, it falls short of expectations, according to several people familiar with the situation. Several funders are poised to end their involvement with the project, the people said. 

The shake-up is a blow to a high-profile campaign by Facebook to show it is acting responsibly after scandals over disinformation and fake news.

But academics hoping to glean insights ahead of the US 2020 elections have run into privacy concerns about the sharing of personal information by Facebook in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford law professor and co-chair of Social Science One, said many academics were “deeply frustrated” with Facebook but that “their privacy objections [were] not frivolous”.

Facebook had been working to apply so-called “differential privacy” to the way in which researchers could query parts of its data, introducing “noise” to the information to prevent anyone from being able to personally identify individuals. 

But this was trickier than initially expected, people involved in the project said, with testers discovering there were still ways to de-anonymise the data, or that it lost some of its accuracy. In addition, Facebook has been nervous of its legal position, especially after the introduction of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. 

Facebook said the project as a whole will still go ahead, but would need a new funding model.

“Our commitment to helping the public have a greater understanding about elections and democracy will continue . . . even if the funding moves in new directions,” Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s vice president of special projects, said in an interview. He declined to name a date by which academics could expect the full dataset.

“We are frustrated that the progress has been slower than we had hoped or liked. But I know of no private company that has invested more into this,” he said, noting that the company has around 20 staff working full time on the project and had already made some data available. “But we are not prepared to accelerate speed at the risk of people’s privacy.” 

Larry Kramer, president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which is one of the funders, said that his organisation would try to still find ways to fund research if data eventually came available, even if they would step back for now. 

He also called on lawmakers to create “a safe harbour” to allow researchers to access data without worrying that they are breaching laws. 

“We need legal guidance . . .[Disinformation] is a genuine threat to the survival of democratic government and getting the data is essential to understanding that threat and learning how to mitigate it,” he said. 

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