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Facebook partners with 17 researchers to study its impact during US elections

Facebook is working with third-party researchers to study how content and user behaviour affect the upcoming 2020 US Presidential Elections, the company announced on August 31. It will look at the impact of how people interact with content on Facebook and Instagram, including the role of their content ranking systems.

Who are researchers are, and how they were chosen: A group of 17 university researchers experts in elections, democracy, and social media will look at how Facebook and Instagram influence issues such as political polarisation and whether and how people vote. The researchers were chosen by Talia Stroud and Joshua A. Tucker, co-chairs of Social Science One, who are also leading project along with two researchers at Facebook. “Facebook did not select the researchers and is taking measures to ensure that they operate independently,” the company said.

Social Science One is a non-profit entity formed in July 2018, co-founded by two professors at Harvard University and Stanford University. It partners with Facebook to build a data-sharing system with academics to enable research into the impact of Facebook.

Explicit, informed consent of users will be taken from users who are part of the study, said Chaya Nayak, who leads Facebook’s open research and transparency team, said. Between 200,000-400,000 American adults will participate in the study.

Costs: While Facebook is covering the costs to participants, the researchers will not be paid by the company to maintain its objectivity, as per the company.

Facebook will not have a say over publishing of the findings: Additionally, Facebook said that the researchers will not need any prior approval from Facebook to publish their findings. “Facebook is entitled to review (not approve or reject) research prior to publication, and remove any confidential or personally identifiable information [original emphasis],” the company said. The company does not have veto power over publishing of the findings.

To ensure another layer of oversight, Michael Wagner, a professor at University of Wisconsin, has been invited to document and publicly comment on the research as an independent observer.

How the research will be done: The research will include surveys and behavioral data analysis, as well as “targeted changes” to some how some users see Facebook and Instagram. Users could, for instance, see more or fewer ads in their News Feed around certain topics. Others may be asked to stop using Facebook and Instagram for a period of time. Some may be asked to install an app on their which may log all the digital media they consume.

Timeline: The study will “start soon” and end in December, while the results are not expected to be published until mid-2021 at the earliest. The US Presidential Elections will be held in the first week of November.

Will Facebook change its products, depending on what the results show? Facebook remain non-committal to this, stating that it is constantly changing its products and the results of this research and other inputs from external stakeholders “will be considered in this process”.

Will this research impact the election outcome? No, according to Facebook. Since the election effort itself is massive, with billions spent on campaigning and organising, it’s “statistically implausible that one research initiative” will impact an election. Facebook added that:

The research has been carefully designed to not impact the outcome of the election or harm participants. The sample of participants represents approximately 0.1% of the entire US eligible voting population spread across the US.

Faebook accused of bias in favour of ruling BJP in India

Facebook India has been at the centre of a controversy these last few weeks, ever since it was revealed that it had refused to take down hate speech content by politicians belonging to the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party. Facebook’s top public policy executive Ankhi Das had advised against taking action against posts made by ruling party leaders in order to avoid damaging the company’s business interests in India. Over the past few days, it has also been reported that Das was overt in her support for the BJP on internal Facebook platforms, while disparaging its main opposition, the Congress party.

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