Today, Facebook announced a new research initiative in partnership with seven leading non-profit foundations to study the effect of social networks on elections. Under the new initiative, researchers in the social sciences will propose research projects for peer review. If the proposal is approved, the researchers will receive the anonymous Facebook data and the corresponding funds from the foundations.
Fundamentally, Facebook "will not have any right to review or approve the results of its research before publication," although it may have influence over which projects are approved.
In an accompanying post on Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg made it clear that the effort was intended as a response to the campaigns of Russian influence that were aimed at the 2016 elections. "Looking back, it is clear that we were too slow to identify the Electoral interference in 2016, "Zuckerberg wrote," and we have to do better in future elections. "
The system addresses a complicated problem for Facebook, which is still reeling from the scandal surrounding unauthorized data collection by Cambridge Analytica. That information was gathered under the pretext of academic research, and Facebook has severed relationships with a number of data partners in the wake of the scandal. At the same time, researchers have emphasized the need to continue investigating the impact of Facebook on society, as a way to answer many of the difficult questions posed by that scandal. That research often requires Facebook data, at a time when the platform tends to close ranks.
It is not clear when the initiative will launch its first round of projects, but the slowness of academic research makes it unlikely that the findings are complete before the 2018 midterms in November. Facebook is working on its own review of problematic content published during the election, which is also scheduled for release after November.