Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Social Data Initiative?

Revelations about the abuse of social data and spread of disinformation make clear that social media can have harmful ramifications for society. The SSRC’s Social Data Initiative examines this pressing problem; facilitates and funds research on the responsible use of data by the private sector and social researchers; and facilitates cross-sector collaborations between data providers and researchers to ensure ethical access to, and use of, social data by scholars. The Social Data Initiative’s first effort, the Social Media and Democracy Research Grants competition, considered the impact of Facebook on contemporary politics globally. Through the Social Data Initiative, the SSRC serves as a bridge in an emergent social science ecosystem that increasingly requires collaborations among media and technology companies, municipal, state and federal governments, philanthropy, and scholarly researchers.

Ongoing work at the SSRC over the past several years, including our 2018 “ To Secure Knowledge ” report, identified the inaccessibility of the proprietary data increasingly necessary for robust research as a core concern. Direct collaboration with platforms—such as through the Social Media and Democracy Research Grants competition—provided one potential avenue for accelerating research that informs, empowers, and protects the public interest. However, It is clear that multiple pathways for academic study of social data are necessary in order to build a robust culture of research and accountability, and therefore better protect democracy and the public.The Social Data Initiative encourages multifaceted pathways and methods for the study of social data with the larger aim of cultivating robust research on technology and society.

Why is the Social Data Initiative needed?

For more than 90 years, the SSRC’s work has been guided by the belief that justice, prosperity, and democracy require a deeper understanding of complex social, cultural, economic, and political processes. And many of these are now online. The Social Data Initiative seeks to study these phenomena in an independent, transparent, and ethical way according to the highest standards of data privacy and academic research, ultimately to improve the lives of all.

A couple of decades ago, much of the data in the world relevant for social science research was available inside the university, at cross-university institutions like the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), or was accessible from government agencies and international organizations such as the The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). With the revolution in computing, and the growth of companies for whom knowledge of human attitudes and behaviors are central to profitable business models, the quantity of socially relevant data has grown exponentially and is largely held as the intellectual property of companies. This transformation has raised a host of critical issues, not least of which is personal data privacy when so much of what so many of us do and think are now recorded as part of everyday life. Indeed, realizing the potential of social science under these new conditions requires tripartite cooperation among academics, the private sector, and government. (For a more detailed exploration of these issues, we recommend the recent SSRC report, “To Secure Knowledge: Social Science Partnerships for the Common Good”).

How does the Social Data Initiative work?

The Social Data Initiative enacts multifaceted pathways and methods for the study of social data, in order to build robust research on technology and society. The Social Data Initiative houses the Social Data Research Fellowships and the Social Data Dissertation Fellowships. The Research Fellowships provide scholars up to $50,000 and the Dissertation Fellowships up to $15,000, both in support of projects in the social sciences and humanities that focus on two key areas: 1) advancing scholarly research on the role social media plays in election and democracy, with an emphasis on the US 2020 election and 2) expanding best practices and methods for accessing and analyzing relevant data that can inform our understanding of the impact of social data on democracy. The full RFP can be found here.

For more information about the Social Data Initiative’s first effort, the Social Media and Democracy Research Grants competition, please visit the grant program webpage. Note that the Social Media and Democracy Research Grant competition stopped accepting applications in 2019.

Does the Social Science Research Council profit from the Social Data Initiative?

No, the SSRC is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.

What is the To Secure Knowledge task force?

SSRC appointed the To Secure Knowledge task force in spring 2017. The task force worked for eighteen months on its report which was released in September 2018. “To Secure Knowledge” offered recommendations on how to enhance social science’s ability to contribute to scientific innovation and public problem-solving. The recommendations included ways to better collect, analyze, and share data, support scholars, create national policy, and more.

What are the Media, Technology, and Politics suite of programs at the SSRC?

The SSRC promotes scholarly field-building and agenda-setting research globally across its more than two dozen programs. The Media, Technology, and Politics suite of programs at the SSRC is a set of related initiatives that interrogate the relationships between media, technology, and politics in an era of ubiquitous digital communication, uneven democratic participation, heightened polarization, and shifting institutional contexts. The Media & Democracy program focuses on the media’s relationship to democratic life; it brings together social scientists, journalists, and technologists to examine the interplay between journalism and the political landscape. MediaWell tracks, collects, and synthesizes scholarship on mis- and disinformation. Anxieties of Democracy promotes research and dialogue on a range of topics related to democratic functioning, including political participation and how democracies respond to climate change, deal with challenges to national security, and address other economic and political issues. Digital Culture examines the role of technology in shaping how social science research is practiced and circulated.

What are Social Data Research Fellowships? What are the Social Data Dissertation Fellowships? Are they the same as the Social Media and Democracy Research Grants?

The Social Data Research Fellowships provide researchers up to $50,000 in support of projects in the social sciences and humanities that focus on two key areas: 1) advancing scholarly research on the role social media plays in election and democracy, with an emphasis on the US 2020 election and 2) expanding best practices and methods for accessing and analyzing relevant data that can inform our understanding of the impact of social data on democracy. The Social Data Dissertation Fellowships provide PhD students up to $15,000 in support of dissertation research focused on these two key areas. The full RFP can be found here.

The Social Data Research and Dissertation Fellowships are distinct from the Social Media and Democracy Research Grants. The Social Media and Democracy Research Grants program has concluded and is no longer accepting proposals.

Is Facebook or Social Science One involved in the Social Data Research and Dissertation Fellowships?

No, Facebook and Social Science One are not involved in the Social Data Research and Dissertation Fellowships.

Do the Social Data Research and Dissertation Fellowships provide data access?

No, the Social Data Research and Dissertation Fellowships are monetary awards and do not provide data access.

How are Social Data Research and Dissertation Fellowships reviewed?

The SSRC will appoint and convene independent peer-review committees of scholars who assess all eligible proposals according to the highest standards of academic research. Review criteria are outlined in the RFP.

What is the SSRC’s ethics review framework?

The growing consensus among digital researchers and ethical experts is that existing safeguards based on institutional review boards (IRBs) and the Common Rule standard are not alone sufficient to ensure ethical research and subject privacy in digital social science. The SSRC’s ethics review framework is an additional ethical review stage in the SSRC’s peer review process. The stage considers the risks posed by a proposal’s unique research question, methodology, and use of available data. The process also examines potential unintended impacts and outcomes resulting from the publication of research findings; a particularly important consideration is protecting historically marginalized populations from the misuse of academic research. All proposals still require approval from a university institutional review board or equivalent.

Are international researchers eligible to apply? Is the research scope limited to the US 2020 elections?

Social Data Research and Dissertation Fellowship eligibility requirements have no limitation based on citizenship or geographic location. Please note that the research topic is limited to the US 2020 election (national, state, and local), broadly construed—this can include comparative work that includes, but reaches beyond, the US.

Can researchers apply for the Social Data Research and Dissertation Fellowships in teams? Are Co-Principal Investigators permitted?

Social Data Research and Dissertation Fellowships are granted to individual researchers, regardless of whether researchers are working alone or in collaboration with others. Co-Principal Investigators are not permitted, but each Principal Investigator is welcome to submit their own proposal. Applicants can indicate that their proposal is part of a collaborative project in the project narrative. The program is not structured to support paying salary for multiple PIs, but applicants can include in their budget costs for research data collection, which can include compensation in support of that work. Additionally, Social Data Research Fellowships allow the fellow to request funds to support a graduate or undergraduate research assistant.

I’m an interested researcher. How do I apply for a grant?

Proposals are due June 16, 2020 and you may apply here. The full RFP can be found here.

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