Facebook has until Sept. 30 to provide data it promised to academic researchers or a consortium of funders will cease to support the project, BuzzFeed News has learned.
The deadline is contained in a soon-to-be-released statement from the Social Science Research Council, a nonprofit that has worked to administer the proposal and grant process as part of a larger project to provide Facebook data to academics.
Facebook said in April 2018 it would share data with academics to help them research the effects of social media on democracy. BuzzFeed News revealed last week that funders and researchers were beginning to lose patience with the company because it had not yet provided all of the necessary data, and had said it would not provide some of the data it initially promised.
Facebook said the challenge of delivering data in a way that was in line with regulatory requirements and that protected the privacy and security of users had been harder than it expected. In a statement, the company said it would continue to pursue data sharing with academics even if the funders and Social Science Research Council withdraw.
Earlier today, those funders — including the Democracy Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, and Omidyar Network — sent a letter to the SSRC saying that they recommend "winding down the project" unless Facebook can deliver a key data set by the end of September. The funders provided support for grants to be made to researchers.
Now the project is in danger of ending, due to what funders claim are delays by Facebook in delivering data, as well as the concern that the company can't "offer a definitive timetable for when the full set of proposed data can be made available."
Facebook's statement said it will continue to work to share data with academics in partnership with Social Science One, the entity set up by Harvard and Stanford academics to facilitate data sharing.
“Researchers currently in the program will continue to receive support and Facebook will continue to provide access to data and tooling to all grant recipients - current and future," the statement said. "We will provide data access to researchers who have not received financial awards through the standard Social Science One RFP processes. Additionally, in partnership with Social Science One, Facebook will continue to make more data available in a secure, privacy-protective manner."
Read the full Aug. 27 statement from the Social Science Research Council president Alondra Nelson:
For nearly a century, the Social Science Research Council has supported researchers as they pursue vanguard and rigorous scholarship for the public good. In keeping with this tradition, the Social Media and Democracy Research Grants program—a collaboration with a diverse group of eight philanthropic organizations, Social Science One, and Facebook–is an effort to make privacy-protected data available to social researchers to examine Facebook’s impact on elections and democracy.
Since July 2018, researchers from around the world have entrusted the Social Media and Democracy Research Grants program with their best ideas and their time. An international community of peer and ethics reviewers, convened by the Council, have considered dozens of research proposals over the past year. (More information on the peer review processes and ethical protections behind this project can be found on the SSRC project page).
Today, the Council received notice from the program’s funding consortium regarding concerns about the absence of the originally specified ‘URL shares’ data and hurdles faced by researchers. As the funders have noted in their letter to the SSRC:
the technical and legal complexities associated with making proprietary data available to independent scholars are greater than any of the parties originally understood, and Facebook has as a result been unable to deliver all the data initially anticipated. The 83 independent scholars whose proposals were selected for funding have access to only a portion of what they were told they could expect, and this has made it difficult or, in some cases, impossible for them to complete the approved research. Nor can Facebook or its privacy and security advisory committees yet offer a definitive timetable for when the full set of proposed data can be made available. (Find linked here the consortium’s full letter to the Council).
If Facebook is unable to deliver the originally specified data by September 30, then the consortium has recommended winding down the project.
As Facebook and Social Science One continue working to make this data available to researchers by September 30, the SSRC will follow the funding consortium’s recommendations:
The SSRC will immediately pause all review processes in this project.
The Council will pay out full grants to all current researchers and will not seek to reclaim any funds irrespective of eventual data availability.
Should the complete ‘URL shares’ data not be made available by September 30, SSRC will fund recently approved researchers if they can complete their research with the presently available data.
I am immensely proud of the work that this partnership has done to address the inaccessibility of the proprietary data increasingly necessary for robust research, a core concern identified by the Council’s recent report, To Secure Knowledge: Social Science Partnerships for the Common Good. Much work remains to be done, through this program and through others, to better understand the impacts of social media on our lives, societies, and institutions.
The Council is appreciative of the generous support of the funder consortium–the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the 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–and of the researchers, reviewers, advisors, and partners without whom this project would not be possible.
Read the full statement from Facebook and Social Science One:
We are grateful for the initial support from the Social Media and Democracy Foundation Funders and the Social Science Research Council to our project. Their efforts over this planned one-year term have been integral to setting this important work in motion and we thank them. As the organizations responsible for initiating this project and managing the infrastructure for independent academic study and privacy-preserving data access, we look forward to continuing and expanding our efforts.
Researchers currently in the program will continue to receive support and Facebook will continue to provide access to data and tooling to all grant recipients — current and future. We will provide data access to researchers who have not received financial awards through the standard Social Science One RFP processes. Additionally, in partnership with Social Science One, Facebook will continue to make more data available in a secure, privacy-protective manner.
Researchers, selected independently by this program, have already used their access to investigate and begin to report on their findings. Datasets 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. As per the original plan of this project, these researchers will be able to publish without prior approval from Facebook or anyone else.
In the coming weeks and months, Facebook and Social Science One will continue working collaboratively to identify valuable privacy protective datasets across a wide range of areas related to elections and democracy.
Added statement from Facebook and Social Science One.