In 2018, Facebook announced a partnership to provide data to academics to “help people better understand the broader impact of social media on democracy — as well as improve our work to protect the integrity of elections.”
In April of this year, the first batch of winning proposals was announced. “The urgency of this research cannot be overstated,” wrote the founders of Social Science One, the nonprofit group created to operate the program.
But as of today, many of the academic teams remain on hold because Facebook has yet to provide key data required to conduct research into sharing patterns of fake and polarized news, Facebook interactions related to the 2018 Italian election, and disinformation campaigns in the recent German election, among other projects. Facebook has also declined to provide some of the data it originally said it would offer, citing privacy concerns.
As frustrations mount, researchers and the major foundations that fund their work fear that the ambitious project may not survive, multiple people told BuzzFeed News. A source with knowledge of discussions between the key parties involved in the project said the funders — which include the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, the Democracy Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, Omidyar Network, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation — are now discussing ways to increase the pressure on the social media giant.
“(Facebook) have definitely thrown major talent at the issue; but ultimately, the proof is in whether we ever get to eat the pudding,” David Lazer, a distinguished professor of political science and computer and information science at Northeastern University, and one of the researchers who was due to receive Facebook data, told BuzzFeed News.
The Social Science One partnership is one of several major initiatives Facebook launched in the wake of election interference, platform manipulation, and data breaches over the past two and a half years.
Multiple Facebook spokespeople told BuzzFeed News the company has a sincere commitment to transparency and the partnerships that enable it. These initiatives have never been tried before — some delays and frustration ought to be expected, they said.
“Facebook has a strong track record of providing transparency through our products, policies, and actions,” said a Facebook spokesperson. “We frequently lead our industry in the ways that we share information about how we operate. As we build on these efforts, we will continue to engage with external experts on ways to provide meaningful insights on the role of technology in society while protecting people’s privacy.”
But despite the company’s ambitions, these transparency initiatives suffer from a pattern of delays, incomplete features, and frayed relations with partners.
When projects are delayed or products don’t deliver what was expected, there’s often little recourse, according to Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center. “There has to be enforcement at the level of government about transparency and social media. And if there isn’t, then this pattern will replicate itself over and over again,” she said.
The pattern began with Facebook’s 2016 announcement that it would partner with third-party fact-checkers to flag false information on the platform. Nearly two and a half years later, those fact-checkers have only recently begun to receive data about the effectiveness of their work. Many of them have publicly expressed frustration with Facebook.
Another initiative is the ad archive, which offers insight into who buys advertisements and which users they target them to. One researcher recently quoted in the New York Times called it “broken,” finding it impossible to pull the necessary data from an archive that itself was previously shown to be incomplete.
“We were the first to introduce this level of ads transparency and it remains a priority,” a Facebook spokesperson told the Times.
And the launch of a tool this week originally marketed as “Clear History,” which enables users to stop the company from tracking them across the web, should have been a privacy win for the company. But it arrived a year late, and it was roundly criticized.
Despite the company’s stumbles, Gary King, a cofounder of Social Science One and director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard, said he’s confident Facebook will deliver on its promises to social scientists. “Everything we’ve done, that we proposed, and that we’re doing has never been done before. So the fact that it’s harder than expected — okay, that’s how research is, right?” he said.
In the case of the delays to Social Science One, Facebook said it has close to 20 employees dedicated to the project and that the technical challenge had been greater than anticipated.
“This voluntary data-sharing project is the first of this magnitude between a private company and academic researchers, and that means working through a number of structural and legal questions,” said a Facebook spokesperson. “We continue to work closely with academics and privacy and security experts to build the infrastructure necessary to share further data with researchers while protecting people’s privacy.”
But behind the scenes, there is a growing frustration among researchers and funders, sources tell BuzzFeed News.
“The funders have been very actively considering what makes sense to think through here and when it makes sense to speak up as a group. Quite frankly, academics can’t operate in limbo for perpetuity,” a source with knowledge of the project’s operations told BuzzFeed News. They asked not to be named due to not being authorized to speak for their organization.
Another source with knowledge of discussions between Facebook, Social Science One, and funders said the core frustration is that Facebook has degraded the quality and depth of the data it will offer, while taking much longer than expected to deliver.
“I think the only way to feel reasonably confident about this project is if you ignore what’s happened over the past 16 months. If you step back and look where we started and where we are it’s a pretty big step-down,” said the source, who was also not authorized to speak publicly.
The source said they believed the company was pulling back on the data being provided due to uncertainty about what the researchers might uncover. “I think they are concerned about opening a Pandora’s box,” they said.
A Facebook spokesperson acknowledged that some data originally promised will not be delivered, but said this is due to concerns about privacy, security, and the need to comply with regulations such as Europe’s GDPR privacy legislation. They said useful data has already been provided to researchers, and some teams are using it.
Joshua Tucker, codirector of the Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) Lab at New York University, said the delay in receiving the full data from Facebook has made it difficult to coordinate the team’s work, but he remains confident that Facebook wants the project to succeed.
“I do not in any way think Facebook is stalling for the sake of stalling — I think they are trying to do things correctly,” he said. “All that being said, it is of course frustrating … to repeatedly learn that there is still no certainty as to when the data that were promised as part of the RFP will be available, and it has created logistical difficulties in terms of getting teams together to carry out the work.”
King said Facebook and other platforms know they have to open up or risk increased federal oversight.
“You have very big companies with incredibly informative and, in part, intrusive data,” he said. “And I think these companies understand that unless they do things with this incredible resource that contributes to the public good, their ability to continue to profit from this information may very well not continue.”