SDI Statement (August 2019)

Statement from Social Science Research Council President Alondra Nelson on the Social Media and Democracy Research Grants Program

August 27, 2019

For nearly a century, the Social Science Research Council has supported researchers as they pursue vanguard and rigorous scholarship for the public good. In keeping with this tradition, the Social Media and Democracy Research Grants program—a collaboration with a diverse group of eight philanthropic organizations, Social Science One, and Facebook—is an effort to make privacy-protected data available to social researchers to examine Facebook’s impact on elections and democracy.

Since July 2018, researchers from around the world have entrusted the Social Media and Democracy Research Grants program with their best ideas and their time. An international community of peer and ethics reviewers, convened by the Council, have considered dozens of research proposals over the past year. (More information on the peer review processes and ethical protections behind this project can be found on the SSRC project page.)

Today, the Council received notice from the program’s funding consortium regarding concerns about the absence of the originally specified ‘URL shares’ data and hurdles faced by researchers. As the funders have noted in their letter to the SSRC:

the technical and legal complexities associated with making proprietary data available to independent scholars are greater than any of the parties originally understood, and Facebook has as a result been unable to deliver all the data initially anticipated. The 83 independent scholars whose proposals were selected for funding have access to only a portion of what they were told they could expect, and this has made it difficult or, in some cases, impossible for them to complete the approved research. Nor can Facebook or its privacy and security advisory committees yet offer a definitive timetable for when the full set of proposed data can be made available. [Find linked here the consortium’s full letter to the Council.]

If Facebook is unable to deliver the originally specified data by September 30, then the consortium has recommended winding down the project.

Next Steps

As Facebook and Social Science One continue working to make this data available to researchers by September 30, the SSRC will follow the funding consortium’s recommendations:

  • The SSRC will immediately pause all review processes in this project.
  • The Council will pay out full grants to all current researchers and will not seek to reclaim any funds irrespective of eventual data availability.
  • Should the complete ‘URL shares’ data not be made available by September 30, the SSRC will fund recently approved researchers if they can complete their research with the presently available data.
  • Should the complete ‘URL shares’ data be made available to researchers by September 30, the funders may be willing to consider extending or reinitiating support to the program.

I am immensely proud of the work that this partnership has done to address the inaccessibility of the proprietary data increasingly necessary for robust research, a core concern identified by the Council’s recent report To Secure Knowledge: Social Science Partnerships for the Common Good. Much work remains to be done, through this program and through others, to better understand the impacts of social media on our lives, societies, and institutions.

The Council is appreciative of the generous support of the funder consortium—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, Omidyar Network, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation—and of the researchers, reviewers, advisors, and partners without whom this project would not be possible.

Media contact:
Nick Berkowitz
212 784 5706
NBerkowitz@GroupGordon.com

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