Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Social Data Initiative?

Recent revelations about the abuse of Facebook data and spread of disinformation make clear that social media can have negative ramifications for society. The SSRC’s Social Data Initiative will examine the problem, explore questions about the responsible use of social network data, and generate insights to inform solutions.

Why is the Social Data Initiative needed?

For more than 90 years, our 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 much of these processes are now online. The Social Data Initiative seeks to study these processes 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 by fostering a better understanding of social processes.

How will the Social Data Initiative work?

Facebook will make data available for the first time to social science researchers via an independent, transparent, peer-review process. The SSRC’s role will include helping to form a steering committee of independent scholars to develop a research agenda about social media’s impact on society, beginning with elections, and stewardship of both the independent application and selection processes, as well as the peer-review process. Any proposal submitted through this process must first have been reviewed by a University Institutional Review Board (IRB), federally approved IRB, or international equivalent.

What is the role of the funders involved in the Social Data Initiative?

Funders are supporting an independent process and independent research; they will not have access to data. Funding will be provided by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the 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. Facebook and the funders will have no say in the selection of research proposals or the publication of the research findings. An independent steering committee of scholars will create the decision-making criteria and research agenda and the SSRC will oversee the peer review process.

I’m an interested researcher. How do I apply?

The next step in the process is to convene the independent steering committee of scholars that will develop a research agenda. Once the initial research agenda has been determined, the SSRC will make public a request for proposals. To sign up for updates about the Social Data Initiative, please visit: https://www.ssrc.org/programs/view/social-data-initiative/mailing-list-signup/

Has the steering committee been determined?

The independent steering committee of scholars is in the early stages of the formation process. Project partners will continue to confer about the full membership of the committee. The first three members include Alondra Nelson, President of the SSRC and Professor of Sociology at Columbia University with a research focus on science, technology and inequality; Gary King, the Albert J. Weatherhead III University Professor and Director for the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University, who is a member of the SSRC’s To Secure Knowledge Task Force; and Nate Persily, the James B. McClatchy Professor of Law at Stanford Law School, who is a member of the advisory committees for the SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy and Media & Democracy programs. The three of us are discussing next steps to build out the committee to ensure it reflects the enduring commitments of the initiative: data privacy, the highest standards of academic research, ethical research outcomes and harnessing the perspectives of leading scholars from diverse geographies and backgrounds.

Is there an estimated timeframe for this project? If so, what is it?

The initial commitment from the funders and Facebook is for one year. Once the initial research agenda has been determined, the SSRC will make public a request for proposals. The exact timeframe is to be determined; the aim is to get it up and running as soon as possible.

Will researchers be independent?

Yes. The SSRC has operated for nearly a century as an independent, nonpartisan institution committed to pursuing projects that advance society and improve everybody’s lives. As with every social science initiative we touch, we will abide by the highest standards of academic research and stay focused on that guiding principle. Moreover, Facebook’s relationship to the research ends at the contribution of the raw, anonymized data. It will make no financial contribution to the initiative or the research and will not have approval over which information is made public.

How will you ensure transparency?

The SSRC is fully committed to transparency at every level of this important work. An independent steering committee of scholars will provide regular public reports on both its efforts and Facebook’s. The SSRC will also engage ethicists, advocates, and civil society communities. The decision-making criteria guiding the research agenda and the selection of researchers will all be made public.

How will you protect sensitive data and privacy?

The SSRC is committed to protecting privacy rights. Independent researchers will only have access to anonymized data. SSRC-appointed review committees will actively engage with technologists, advocates, and ethicists to develop 21st-century academic standards for anonymized digital data use—with particular emphasis on the potential impacts on vulnerable groups by the dynamics the initiative studies. And, Facebook and the users of its data are bound by the data access and privacy laws where they operate.

Will the SSRC hold any data?

No. Researchers will have access to anonymized data for specific research. The work will be monitored and approved by an independent steering committee of scholars and results will be made public without prior approval from funders or Facebook.

What kind of data will be shared with researchers?

Only anonymized Facebook data will be shared, although the specific types of data are to be determined. Scholars who submit proposals that are accepted upon peer review will receive access to the anonymized data necessary to answer their questions. These datasets will come from Facebook and/or from other sources such as surveys or focus groups. At its core, the SSRC’s Social Data Initiative is committed to data privacy.

How will proposed projects to access Facebook data be reviewed?

The SSRC will convene the independent steering committee of scholars that will develop a research agenda. Once the committee identifies the appropriate questions to be asked, it will work with the SSRC to develop requests for independent research proposals. According to the highest standards of academic research, proposals will be subject to rigorous peer view managed by the SSRC.

Why is this good for researchers?

The Social Data Initiative has the potential to usher in a new paradigm for research collaboration between industry and the academy, enhancing our ability to produce findings that advance society. The need for industry-academic collaboration to make private data more readily accessible is a central recommendation of a report to be released this fall by the SSRC’s To Secure Knowledge task force, which began its work a year ago. Gary King of Harvard University, who is a member of the SSRC’s To Secure Knowledge task force, and Nate Persily of Stanford Law School, who is a member of the advisory committees for the SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy and Media & Democracy programs, which have been examining related issues for years, are a driving force in the development of this pioneering model for industry-academic collaboration. Allowing independent social science researchers to study this massive new dataset—while keeping in mind privacy concerns and placing a particular focus on the impact on vulnerable communities—can produce findings that improve everybody’s lives.

Why is this good for the public?

So many of the complex social, cultural, economic, and political processes that govern our lives and our decisions now occur online, but access to these new and massive amounts of data is largely restricted to private companies. Access to these types of data, anonymized, by independent researchers committed to privacy rights is necessary for better understanding of social processes in the 21st century.

What is the To Secure Knowledge task force?

SSRC appointed the To Secure Knowledge task force in early 2017. It has been working for more than a year on a report to be released this fall offering recommendations on how to enhance social science’s ability to contribute to scientific innovation and public problem-solving. The recommendations will cover ways to better collect, analyze, and share data, support scholars, create national policy, and more.

What are the Anxieties of Democracy and Media & Democracy programs?

SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy program 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. One of its projects is the Media & Democracy program, which 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.

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