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Facebook will give researchers new data to study election interference

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A new initiative will provide anonymized data sets for specific projects

Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Today, Facebook announced a new research initiative partnering with seven prominent nonprofit foundations to study the effect of social media on elections. Under the new initiative, social science researchers will propose research projects for peer review based on a set of general research goals. If a proposal is approved, the researchers will receive the anonymized data from Facebook and accompanying funding from the foundations.

Crucially, Facebook “will not have any right to review or approve their research findings prior to publication,” although it may have influence over which projects are approved.

In an accompanying Facebook post, Mark Zuckerberg made it clear that the effort was intended as a response to the Russian influence campaigns that targeted the 2016 election. “Looking back, it’s clear we were too slow identifying election interference in 2016,” Zuckerberg wrote, “and we need to do better in future elections.”

The system tackles a tricky issue for Facebook, which is still reeling from the scandal surrounding the unauthorized data collection by Cambridge Analytica. That data was collected under the pretense of academic research, and Facebook has cut ties with a number of data partners in the wake of the scandal. At the same time, researchers have emphasized the need for further research of Facebook’s impact on society, as a way of answering many of the difficult questions raised by that scandal. That research often requires data from Facebook, at a time when the platform is otherwise inclined to close ranks.

It’s unclear when the initiative will launch its first round of projects, but the slow pace of academic research makes it unlikely that any findings will be complete before the 2018 midterms in November. Facebook is working on its own review of problematic content posted during the election, which is also scheduled for release after November.