Facebook has announced that it will let academics request access to data on its two billion users to explore complex social issues. Despite people’s qualms over privacy, the move could help regain the trust of users if the data is put to good use, and respects people’s online privacy. We discover the insights behind the ploy, and how greater levels of transparency is vital for Facebook if they want to redeem themselves in the eyes of its users.
The tech giant announced that under the guidance of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) academics could put forth research proposals under a model designed to promote academic collaboration. This model was devised for by Gary King and Nate Persily of Harvard University and Stanford Law School respectively. The first confirmed topic of research will assess social media’s impact on elections, a timely measure in light of Facebook’s recent controversies, such as the Cambridge Analytica Scandal and the eruption of misinformation. However Alondra Nelson, president of the SSRC, highlighted that research can cover any topic: “There are no restrictions [from Facebook] on what the research questions are or how the data is used or where research is published – Facebook has no control over it. This is most social and behavioural data [academics] have ever had, it’s a rich source of information about how society works, and what social media and technology is doing to us.”
People are increasingly wary of the ways in which 'big data' can be used nefariously. However, evidence suggests that people’s relationship with their personal data is much more complex than this, especially if they can see that it's used to benefit them. For example 40% of people are willing to trade privacy for personalisation. The SSRC-Facebook initiative represents a move towards the transparent use of big data overseen by non-profit organisations to explore social issues that could benefit people. Though the way in which people react to the project is yet to be seen, it’s likely to pivot around how the research handles privacy. “We know that everyone is looking at this project to see whether privacy-protected data can be made available to social scientists in a way that doesn’t repeat the problems of the past.” says Persily.
Tad Buxton is an intern at Canvas8, which specialises in behavioural insights and consumer research.. He studies English Literature and History of Art at the University of Edinburgh. When he’s not studying, he enjoys surfing, reading sci-fi novels, and dreaming up new business ideas.