A New Initiative to Explore the Impact of Social Media on Democracy

By Mike Kubzansky, CEO, Omidyar Network & Sarah Drinkwater, Director, Beneficial Tech

In April 2018, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was called to testify in front of Congress amid growing concerns the social media platform had been used to alter global political outcomes—both in the US and abroad. With the upcoming 2020 elections, this concern—and our desire to understand the impact of social media and disinformation on elections—is more urgent than ever. We believe that nothing less than our democracy is at stake.

That’s why we are funding a new two-year initiative with the international, independent nonprofit Social Science Research Council (SSRC) to examine social media’s role in elections and democracy. Through research convenings, workshops, and small grants, SSRC will work with the research community to advance new or enhance existing approaches to collecting and analyzing proprietary social media data.

This is our second attempt in this space, and our hope is that we’ve learned some lessons that will make this one more successful. Initially, we were part of a funder collaborative that supported an ambitious project with Social Science One, an organization focused on building unique partnerships between academic researchers and private industry, to study the effects of social media on democracy and elections. That project, a first-of-its-kind partnership with any social media platform that was supposed to give researchers unprecedented access to secure, privacy-protected data, would have been an important step forward. But purported technical challenges and legal concerns have prevented Facebook from delivering this data as of yet.

We remain committed to this issue because democracy is on the line. Together with our partners at SSRC, we will work to find pathways to other privacy-protected, rigorous, ethical, and independent social media data research, taking the lessons learned and applying them to our work moving forward, including:

Creating independent research using private data. We aim to be clearer on a private company’s commitment to enabling independent research before funding.

Exploring alternatives to advance this work independently of an industry partner. We need to think of ways to replicate the potential impact of an academic-industry partnership—to the best of our abilities—without relying on the goodwill and commitment of a private company.

Our hope is that this new project with SSRC will not just enable numerous types of research (e.g., into the promotion of quality news), but also increase our ability to design more effective tools to combat disinformation campaigns.

In our original blog post, we said Social Science One’s untested yet promising structure of academic-industry collaboration, coupled with Facebook’s voluntary participation, was a bold bet. While this one hasn’t panned out as we and the other funders had hoped, we still believe in those types of bold bets—and the role of philanthropy in an era where the largest social media platforms have disproportionate power.

We have no time to waste to gain a deeper, scientific understanding of what’s driving information and disinformation in society. We remain optimistic about the power and the insights that privacy-protected data can provide to the public good.