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, considers 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.

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’s first effort, the Social Media and Democracy Research Grants competition, considers the impact of Facebook on contemporary politics globally. In collaboration with Social Science One, an entity developed by Professors Gary King and Nate Persily, Facebook will make data available for the first time to social science researchers via an independent process. The SSRC’s role includes supporting Social Science One with funding; issuance of requests for proposals (RFPs) for the Social Media and Democracy Research Grants competition, selection and appointment of peer reviewers, and stewardship of the independent application peer-review selection process and the ethics review process. Peer reviewers reflect the enduring commitments of the initiative to data privacy, the highest standards of academic research, ethical research outcomes, and the value of the perspectives of leading scholars from diverse geographies and backgrounds. For further details on the peer-review process, visit ssrc.org/rfp.

Proposals submitted through this process must first have been reviewed by a Common Rule-compliant University Institutional Review Board (IRB), federally approved IRB, or international equivalent. Any proposal selected as a finalist for funding undergoes further ethics and privacy review via an SSRC committee of experts appointed and convened by the Council, with consultation from the NSF-sponsored PERVADE (Pervasive Data Ethics for Computational Research) research team. More information about our review processes can be found on the Social Media and Democracy Research Grants project page.

How will you ensure transparency?

SSRC is committed to transparency at every level of this important work. We provide regular public updates about our efforts and engage ethicists, advocates, and civil society communities. All decision-making criteria guiding the research grantees and the selection of researchers has been made public by the SSRC in the requests for proposals. We at the SSRC, along with our partners, set out to create a transparent pathway for scholars to be given secure access to social media data—access based not on location or connections, but on the basis of their professional qualifications, the strength of their research questions and methods, and their commitment to accountability, transparency, and excellence.

How are Social Media and Democracy Research Grants reviewed?

The SSRC has appointed and convened 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. Finalists’ proposals are subject to further review by the SSRC’s data ethics review committee and are also reviewed by commission co-chairs Gary King and Nate Persily to ensure that the proposed project poses no risk to privacy, before funding is processed and distributed by the SSRC.

How will you protect sensitive data and privacy?

At its core, the SSRC’s Social Data Initiative is committed to data privacy. Our academic and ethical review processes help to ensure that only qualified scholarly researchers receive access to the privacy-protected data. The SSRC has actively engaged with technologists, advocates, and ethicists to develop twenty-first-century academic standards for ethical and privacy-protected digital data use—with particular emphasis on the potential impacts on vulnerable groups. Additionally, Social Media and Democracy Research Grants recipients are required to secure IRB approval or its international equivalent and to sign data access agreements to abide by the highest ethical standards. Our partner Social Science One has also implemented robust technical data protections. And, Facebook and the users of its data are bound by the data access and privacy laws where they operate. In addition, working with its collaborators on the PERVADE research team, the SSRC will use the Social Data Initiative as a unique opportunity to generate new research insights on the data ethics and privacy issues that may arise as research with social data expands.

What does the data ethics and privacy process entail?

The SSRC’s data ethics and privacy process, the Social Data Research Review Framework adds an essential tool to our approaches to enhancing ethical norms for both individuals and institutions. This process, developed in consultation with members of the PERVADE team—a National Science Foundation research project on social science research ethics—considers ethical safeguards for proposals, and includes the following:

  • Only research proposals submitted with federal or international IRB approval or its international equivalent are eligible to apply. In cases in which IRB is not available at a scholar’s institution, approval from a private IRB may be submitted.
  • Proposals that are successful in the peer-review process are sent to the SSRC’s data ethics committee for further review. This committee examines the risks to privacy that might be raised by the proposed research and suggests privacy-preserving methods that will improve the research as necessary.
  • Review processes guided by the Social Data Research Review Framework also generates a list of suggestions for improvement and, when appropriate, a list of actionable steps that approved researchers can take to better protect subjects from harm.
  • Using information submitted in a research proposals, an independent research team—in collaboration with the SSRC—is investigating the spectrum of issues regarding data ethics and privacy in academic studies of social media data. This research of the Social Data Initiative will contribute to social researchers’ and the general public’s understanding of the risks posed by social data analysis and ways to mitigate them.

What kind of data will be shared with researchers?

Only privacy-protected Facebook data will be shared, although the specific types of data are to be determined in the RFP process. Scholars who submit proposals that successfully meet the peer review threshold will receive access to the data necessary to answer their questions. These datasets will come from Facebook via Social Science One.

Will the SSRC hold any data?

No. Researchers will have access to privacy-preserving data for specific research via Facebook. The Social Data Initiative connects social data researchers and privately-held data providers in a transparent, peer-reviewed process and in a purely nonprofit context.

How will you ensure global participation?

Eliminating barriers to diverse, global participation is a top priority for the Social Media and Democracy Research Grants program. We employ an independent peer-review process guided by transparent selection criteria. This systematic pathway grants secure access to data based on the merits of inquiry alone. As an international research nonprofit, the SSRC is committed to creating equitable systems to facilitate and support scholars from around the world in advancing social science to improve lives. We provide support for researchers throughout the application process, including guidance about how to draft effective proposals and grants to cover the cost of obtaining independent review board approval, should doing so be cost prohibitive.

Alongside this project’s push toward broad structural equity, we, with our partners, are working on a number of efforts to accelerate international project participation. One Social Media and Democracy Research Grants funding stream is dedicated to supporting research focused on regions outside of North America and Europe. The Social Media and Democracy Research Grant announcement was translated into five languages and distributed across the SSRC’s international networks. And our partners at Social Science One have taken news of this project to Johannesburg, Taiwan, Amsterdam, São Paulo, and New Delhi in an effort to recruit international commission members to drive a global research agenda and to encourage international applicants. We are nearly finished with our third round of review, a process that to date has included researchers and peer reviewers representing every continent but Antarctica.

Will the research be independent?

Yes. Facebook’s relationship to the research ends at the contribution of privacy-protected data. It makes no financial contribution to the initiative or the research and does not have approval over what research findings are made public. The SSRC has operated for nearly a century as an independent, nonpartisan institution committed to pursuing projects that advance society and improve lives. As with every initiative we touch, we abide by the highest standards of academic research and ensure research autonomy; we continue to be focused on that guiding principle.

You announced the first cohort of Social Media and Democracy Grant recipients in April 2019. Are more awards to come?

Yes. Additional review cycles are in progress and more awards will be announced soon.

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

The following consortium of funders are supporting an independent process and independent research via the SSRC which serves as the project’s fiscal sponsor and administrative home: the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Children’s Investment Fund 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.

Do funders have access to the data?

No.

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

No, the SSRC is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.

Are Facebook, Social Science One, or any of the funders profiting from the Social Media and Democracy Research Grants competition?

No.

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

Proposals are accepted on a rolling basis and you may apply here. The full RFP can be found here.

I am an interested researcher, where can I find more information about data availability?

Our partner, Social Science One, will have the most up to date information about data.

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 fostering a better understanding of social processes in the twenty-first century to improve the lives of all.

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 released in 2018 by the SSRC’s To Secure Knowledge task force, which began its work two years 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 driving forces in the development of this pioneering model for industry-academic collaboration. Allowing independent social science researchers to study Facebook datasets—while keeping in mind privacy concerns and placing a particular focus on the impact on vulnerable communities—can produce findings that improve lives.

What is Social Science One?

Professors King and Persily have incorporated elements of their white paper on industry-academy partnerships into an entity called Social Science One, LLC, which is SSRC’s partner in the effort to create a systematic, independent pathway to Facebook data for scholars from around the world. Social Science One has absorbed what was formerly referred to as the Commission, and manages the working relationship with Facebook on the creation of datasets. For more information on Social Science One please visit its website.

The SSRC has engaged with Social Science One in accordance with the core commitments of the Social Data Initiative: the highest standards of academic research, data privacy, harnessing the perspectives of leading scholars from diverse geographies and backgrounds, and mobilizing knowledge for the public good. The SSRC independently administers research funding, leads the peer review and data ethics review process, and works with Social Science One to manage the research. Social Science One’s direct role in handling the data and liaising with Facebook helps to ensure that all-important review and funding decisions remain independent of Facebook. For more information on the relationship between Social Science One and the review structure, please visit https://www.ssrc.org/rfp.

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 Anxieties of Democracy and Media & Democracy programs?

The SSRC promotes scholarly field-building and agenda-setting research globally across its more than two dozen programs. The 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. 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.

How do I receive updates about the Social Data Initiative?

To sign up for updates about the Social Data Initiative, please visit this link.

Revised April 29, 2019.

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