Recent Facebook Experiments Rely on Proprietary Meta Data

September 25, 2023

When one has proprietary data, researchers who want to study that data must work with you. That gives Meta the home court advantage in a series of recent studies, we learn from the Science‘s article, “Does Social Media Polarize Voters? Unprecedented Experiments on Facebook Users Reveal Surprises.” The 2020 Facebook and Instagram Election Study has produced four papers so far with 12 more on the way. The large-scale experiments confirm Facebook’s algorithm pushes misinformation and reinforces filter bubbles, especially on the right. However, they seem to indicate less influence on users’ views and behavior than many expected. Hmm, why might that be? Writer Kai Kupferschmidt states:

“But the way the research was done, in partnership with Meta, is getting as much scrutiny as the results themselves. Meta collaborated with 17 outside scientists who were not paid by the company, were free to decide what analyses to run, and were given final say over the content of the research papers. But to protect the privacy of Facebook and Instagram users, the outside researchers were not allowed to handle the raw data. This is not how research on the potential dangers of social media should be conducted, says Joe Bak-Coleman, a social scientist at the Columbia School of Journalism.”

We agree, but when companies maintain a stranglehold on data researchers’ hands are tied. Is it any wonder big tech balks at calls for transparency? The article also notes:

“Scientists studying social media may have to rely more on collaborations with companies like Meta in the future, says [participating researcher Deen] Freelon. Both Twitter and Reddit recently restricted researchers’ access to their application programming interfaces or APIs, he notes, which researchers could previously use to gather data. Similar collaborations have become more common in economics, political science, and other fields, says [participating researcher Brendan] Nyhan. ‘One of the most important frontiers of social science research is access to proprietary data of various sorts, which requires negotiating these one-off collaboration agreements,’ he says. That means dependence on someone to provide access and engage in good faith, and raises concerns about companies’ motivations, he acknowledges.”

See the article for more details on the experiments, their results so far, and their limitations. Social scientist Michael Wagner, who observed the study and wrote a commentary to accompany their publication, sees the project as a net good. However, he acknowledges, future research should not be based on this model where the company being studied holds all the data cards. But what is the alternative?

Cynthia Murrell, September 25, 2023


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