Why Facebook is offering research grants to map social media?s impact on democracy

On April 29, Facebook announced that researchers will receive grants to study privacy-protected data on the platform in an attempt to understand the role of social media in elections and on democracy. The platform said that a “first-of-its-kind data sharing infrastructure” will give these researchers access to data in a manner that still maintains user privacy.

“We hope this initiative will deepen public understanding of the role social media has on elections and democracy and help Facebook and other companies improve their products and practices,” said Facebook.

What is Facebook’s initiative?

Researchers will get grants to track the popularity of news content on Facebook and Instagram through CrowdTangle API, political ads in the US, UK, Brazil, India, Ukraine, and Israel through Ad Library API, and Facebook URL data sets.

The Facebook data sets will include information on total shares from a URL, engagement statistics, and fact-checking ratings from third parties.

For this project, Facebook is working with Social Science One’s privacy committee to keep the process secure and confidential. In addition to the data sharing infrastructure, Facebook will remove identifiable information from data sets, allow researchers to access the data only through two-factor authentication and a VPN, and limit the number of times a certain query can be run in the system.

Sixty researchers from 30 educational institutions and 11 countries were drafted to participate after a competitive peer review process.

“To assure the independence of the research and the researchers, Facebook did not play any role in the selection of the individuals or their projects and will have no role in directing the findings or conclusions of the research,” said the company.

Social media and democracy

Facebook first came into the limelight for security flaws after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Cambridge Analytica, a political communications company, was accused of obtaining private information from 50 million Facebook users’ profiles.

The data mined could have helped create psychological profiles of American voters and feed them targeted ads and campaigns in an attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election.

In the 2016 US presidential election, there was public concern about tampering, spread of false information, and foreign interference abetted by Donald Trump and his associates. Hence, Special Counsel Robert Mueller was asked to investigate any links between Russian operatives and Trump’s campaign.

In what has widely been called the ‘Mueller Report’, Mueller released the findings of his investigation into whether there was Russian interference and obstruction of justice by Trump.

Mueller said Russian intelligence did hack computers in the US. He also found several of Trump’s high-profile advisers guilty for a range of crimes: Roger Stone was indicted for his contact with Wikileaks, a website that released Hillary Clinton’s hacked emails, and Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort were charged with financial fraud.

In 2018, the US’ Department of Home land Security, Department of Justice, and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) addressed security concerns for the upcoming 2020 elections.

“Our agencies have been working in unprecedented ways to combat influence efforts and to support state and local officials in securing our elections, including efforts to harden election infrastructure against interference,” said the FBI.

The three departments also outlined concerns of Chinese, Iranian, and Russian interference through social media posts and ad content.

Of India, social media, elections…

Although Indian elections haven’t yet been impacted by foreign intervention, the government has been concerned just the same. After right-wing Twitter users protested that they were being censured on Twitter, BJP member Anurag Thakur met with them.

Later in February, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was summoned to a parliamentary hearing on “safeguarding of citizens’ rights on social/online news media platforms”. Thakur led the parliamentary committee.

Dorsey skipped the hearing but sent Twitter’s Global Vice President of Public Policy Colin Cromwell in his stead.

Cromwell said every tweet and account is treated impartially by a specialised global team that enforces the platform’s code of conduct.

“India is the world’s largest democracy, and one of our largest and fastest-growing audience markets globally. We are committed to surfacing all sides of the conversation as we enter the election season in this extraordinarily diverse cultural, political, and social climate,” Cromwell said.

Following this and leading up to the Lok Sabha elections 2019, Google and Facebook established new policies regulating political advertisements in India.

Both social media giants required transparency on part of advertisers who wanted to buy political ads in India.

…And the checks in place

Google created a new ‘Paid by’ feature to its sponsored content and asked ad buyers, including political candidates and parties, to complete a verification process before their ad went live. This included obtaining Election Commission-issued certificates and providing government-issued documents as ID proof.

Facebook also imposed similar policies—it asked advertisers to submit government-issued documents, like passports and driver’s licences.

“We hope the ad authorisation process helps candidates, political parties, and other organisations provide people with more information about who’s behind the ads they’re seeing,” said Facebook.

Less than a month to the election, the EC addressed the use of social media and created a media code of ethics regulating Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Google, ShareChat, and TikTok.

Although none of these platforms were obligated to monitor content for any ethics violations, they participated voluntarily.

Under this new social media code, the mentioned websites will run awareness workshops on electoral conduct, fast-track any violations in three hours, and facilitate freedom of expression and access to information.

Barring some accusations of the EC delaying action against the ruling party for Model Code of Conduct violations, the office has been busy processing and deciding on numerous ethics complaints in the last four phases of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The Model Code of Conduct came into force at the beginning of the election on April 11 and will stay in place until May 23, when results are declared.

Phase 5 of the Lok Sabha elections will begin on May 6.

Rhea Arora is a Staff Writer at Qrius

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