A group working with Facebook to examine how the social media platform affects elections said its researchers have not been given the data promised, as the company faces mounting obligations to deal with concerns about fake news and privacy.
In a strongly-worded letter on Tuesday, funders of a project intended to shed light on how the Facebook platform could be misused said the company had failed to open up the full trove of data needed by the academics, and threatened to pull out of the initiative.
They said the social media network had been “unable to deliver all the data initially anticipated” and that some researchers had only been granted access to “a portion of what they were told they could expect”. This has made it difficult or impossible for them to complete their work, the letter said.
The news comes only months after Facebook opened up its cache of data to independent researchers for the first time, as part of an effort to appease critics in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. As part of this research initiative, Facebook said the academics would be able to see how advertisers use the information on its site and how content spreads.
Since the 2016 US election Facebook has been dogged by concerns about the ways in which its platform has been used to influence national elections and its broader impact on democracy. Critics have accused it of being opaque about how it has enabled the spread of fake news and of behaving irresponsibly with user data.
This year Facebook was hit with a$5bn fine from the US Federal Trade Commission for leaking data to Cambridge Analytica and ordered to establish an independent committee to scrutinise its privacy practices.
In an effort to stem the criticism, Facebook announced plans last year to create a “Supreme Court-style” body to review decisions about whether certain controversial content can remain on the platform. It has also outlined plans to counter the spread of harmful and misleading content, while chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has promised to make “major changes . . . to how we run this company.”
However, on Tuesday the consortium funding the academic research said the “URL shares” data — web addresses shared on Facebook between January 2017 and February 2019 — that had been promised to the researchers had not been made available.
It added that Facebook had failed to provide a “definitive timetable” for when the information would be made available, and recommended “winding down the project” if the data are not delivered by September 30.
The Social Science Research Council, which chose the academics who were to be granted access to the information, said it would follow the consortium’s recommendations.
If the trove of URL shares is provided to the researchers by September 30, the council said, the funders “may be willing to consider extending or reinitiating support to the programme”.
Facebook said it remained committed to the project and would continue to support the researchers. New data sets would be available in the coming weeks and months, it added. The delay in releasing information has been caused in part by privacy and security concerns.
“Data sets have already been shared with over 60 researchers, across 17 labs, and 30 universities around the world. Researchers can for the first time answer significant questions about the content that is being shared across Facebook, including country specific analyses in many countries, and the impact of third-party fact check ratings on efforts to curb misinformation,” said Facebook and research partner Social Science One in a joint statement.
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