Facebook to give anonymized data to researchers

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Facebook has announced a new research initiative which will help researchers obtain data from the social networking website without revealing any information regarding who’s data they’re receiving. The research is primarily being done by nonprofit organizations to see the effect of social media on elections.

Facebook has been under hot water recently when it was revealed to the public that a firm (Cambridge Analytica) was able to access and use data of millions of Facebook users. What concerned many was the fact that why Facebook kept a large record of every individual that has signed up at the website. It was found out that Facebook, in fact, knows a lot more about you than you think and is able to track you across multiple websites and platforms.

Facebook then admitted to tracking users to an extent, but it’s obvious that a lot more goes on behind the scenes. It knows a frightening amount of information about all its users and this information is sold to advertisers which then give people ads according to their preferences. This is the reason for people getting mostly ads relevant to what they’re looking for or ads popping up for things they search on the web. These ads are also the reason Facebook is free to use.

Given the recent criticism Facebook has received regarding the whole CA fiasco it’s a bit surprising that Facebook is taking part in this research initiative. However, it can be seen as the company trying to right a wrong by anonymizing all the data given to firms now. This way, firms will still be able to use and interpret data for their research purposes whilst maintaining the privacy of Facebook’s users. Moreover, Facebook “will not have any right to review or approve their research findings prior to publication,” although it may be able to influence which projects are approved.

The research initiative is focused on elections, Mark Zuckerberg has come forward to explain the reasoning behind choosing elections as the research topic. The new research program is a response to the Russian influence campaigns that were aimed at the 2016 US elections. “Looking back, it’s clear we were too slow identifying election interference in 2016,” Zuckerberg wrote, “and we need to do better in future elections.”

Now given Facebook’s already under fire for not protecting users’ data more as CA was able to get unauthorized access to data for millions of users, it’s interesting how Facebook will handle this. The social media company has since cut its ties with many firms but the data Facebook has on its users is valuable for many firms. Apart from advertisers, researchers also require data from Facebook as they want to study the impact the social networking site has on society. Some researchers also want to look into the problems caused by the recent Facebook scandal with CA, in most of the cases, Facebook’s data is very important for the research to provide good results. Therefore, it doesn’t seem as if the site will stop providing data to researchers, but it seems they’ll be more careful and selective now.

Providing anonymized data is a step in the right direction, at least companies other than Facebook don’t get information about others, so a bit of privacy is still maintained. As for when the project officially starts, it hasn’t been confirmed yet.

Moreover, it takes time to for Academic research to get completed, therefore, it’s hard to expect any results for the research taking places until towards the end of 2018. Facebook itself will also be working on a review of the 2016 election regarding the problematic content that was posted during the election campaigns, it’s scheduled for a post-November release.


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