A group of 20 academics based at universities around the world have written an open letter to Facebook, asking Facebook to rethink its engagement with the research community. Recent concerns over privacy forced Facebook to introduce new restrictions to third party access to public user data via its Application Programming Interfaces (API). It might seem like a good move for some users but in the academic world, it is an issue, due to the implications for research activities through the platform. So what are the challenges of using Facebook data for Academic purposes?
“Clearly the aim of this is to try and protect user data, and that’s perfectly appropriate,” said Axel Bruns, coauthor of the letter and Chief Investigator in Queensland University of Technology’s Digital Media Research Centre.
“But at the same time it also significantly reduces the opportunity for independent scrutiny of what happens on Facebook. It actually positions Facebook even more as the gatekeeper of what kind of research can be done on the platform.”
Facebook announced it will support a research initiative to shed light on social media’s impact on elections. The research will be independent of Facebook and funded by a number of philanthropic foundations, including the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, Democracy Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, the Omidyar Network, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The company sees this as a partnership opportunity between the industry and academia. But isn’t this a bit too limiting, as some point out. Innovative research conducted on little-known topics by undiscovered researchers will be overlooked in this case.
Currently, all third-parties are faced with the same restrictions on access to Facebook user data. The letter authors are calling for Facebook to develop specific rules that grant wider access to academics. They note that academics are required to obtain ethical clearance for their work, which is not the case for commercial app developers or market research companies.
Danish researcher Anja Bechmann put out an informal call to compile a list of published research that would not have existed without access to data from various social media platforms.
To date, researchers have added more than 120 studies spanning topics from how protests are organized on social media, to the way misinformation spreads online, and the role Facebook plays in the transition to parenthood. This is the type of research academics are talking about and are afraid could suffer due to data access restrictions.
David Vaile, chair of the Australian Privacy Foundation, points out that an academic was involved in the data breach at the heart of the Cambridge Analytica scandal – although he was apparently working in a personal capacity at the time. So here is why a lot of people are supporting the data restriction policy in the first place.
Another group of researchers conducted a research project on Facebook about emotional contagion, which reportedly targeted people online without consent and in the absence of university-standard ethical oversight. So maybe the first ethical boundaries should be set to avoid such problems from happening.
After all, we do live in an environment where big data and AI tools that can infer identity from anonymous data and the proliferation of other data “in the wild” are becoming more sophisticated all the time.
“Everyone wants to trust, nobody wants to ask what being trustworthy means,” Valie said.
“To me, it means you’ve done the hard work, the global vulnerability research, the technical probabilities and statistics to frankly take part in the discussion that might have to say: actually we might not be able to protect this.”
In the absence of any assurance that data can be guaranteed to be permanently and reliably protected, Vaile advocates “doing more with less”. That means collecting less and retaining less and using those new tools not to “collect it all” but to make the most of the minimum possible.
“A more up-to-date, future-looking solution would be to say: let’s work with what we’ve got already, and try to really understand that,” he said.
Decision-makers are now required to work out the line between protections for user data and research that could make companies such as Facebook more accountable. The challenge of using Facebook data for Academic purposes are being addressed currently, so we have to wait and see the new developments in this field.