Joshua Tucker, a professor in NYU’s Department of Politics and director for the Jordan Center for the Advance Study of Russia, will be part of a research organization that will examine the impact of social media on elections and democracy.

U.S. polling place
Joshua Tucker, a professor in NYU’s Department of Politics and director for the Jordan Center for the Advance Study of Russia, will be part of a research organization that will examine the impact of social media on elections and democracy. (c)iStock/flySnow

Studies Will Rely on Facebook Data to Better Understand Platform’s Role in the Democratic Process       

Joshua Tucker, a professor in NYU’s Department of Politics and director for the Jordan Center for the Advance Study of Russia, will be part of a research organization that will examine the impact of social media on elections and democracy.

Social Science One will foster academic-industry partnerships around the world, initially focused on analyzing Facebook data, with the aim of reaching new understandings on the role of the company’s social media platform in the democratic process.

“The majority of research to date on social media and politics has tended to involve Twitter data because of its accessibility to researchers, but we know that in order to really understand how social media affects politics in most countries, we also need to understand the role of Facebook,” explains Tucker, co-director of the NYU Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) lab.

“If we can ever hope to mitigate potential harmful effects from social media on electoral integrity, then the very first step to doing needs to be actually figure out with hard evidence what those effects are and how they are felt,” he adds. “The research the initiative will facilitate therefore has the potential not just to increase our scientific understanding of the political process in the digital age, but also to have practical benefits for supporting the quality of democracy.”

“The data collected by private companies has vast potential to help social scientists understand and solve society’s greatest challenges,” says Social Science One co-founder and Facebook partnership co-chair Gary King, a professor at Harvard University and director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science. “But until now that data has typically been unavailable for academic research. Social Science One has established an ethical structure for marshalling privacy preserving industry data for the greater social good while ensuring full academic publishing freedom.”

Social Science One functions in the following manner: a commission of distinguished academics acts as a trusted third party, with full access to the company’s proprietary data and knowledge of what is needed by the academic community, and identifies data sets that form formal Requests for Proposals. Outside academics who pass a rigorous peer review process are given data access, research funding, the ability to publish without prior review by the company, and other services. The peer review process for the Facebook partnership is administered by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC).

The first privacy-protected data set that researchers may propose to analyze involves information and misinformation. It includes about a petabyte of data with almost all public URLs Facebook users globally have clicked on, when, and by what types of people, including many links judged to be intentionally false news stories by third party fact checkers.

The SocialScience.One website describes these data and offers a growing list of other data sets in preparation.

“The study of social media data -- and other forms of big data produced by private companies -- has always involved very high start-up costs, both in terms of the development of technical skills and in terms of securing access to data,” observes Tucker, who will chair Social Science One’s Disinformation and Electoral Integrity Committee advisory committee. “The promise of the Social Science One academic-industry initiative is that it provides a pathway towards reducing those start-up costs, and hopefully should lead to more people being able to participate in the research process.”

In a 2017 study, Tucker, along with Professor Richard Bonneau, director of NYU’s Center for Data Science, and NYU Politics doctoral students Denis Stukal and Sergey Sanovich, isolated the characteristics of bots on Twitter through an examination of bot activity related to Russian political discussions. Their findings, reported in the journal Big Data, provided new insights into detecting these bots, which are suspected of being used to provoke or disrupt politics internationally.

The Social Science One research will be funded by a group of charitable foundations, including 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, Omidyar Network’s Tech and Society Solutions Lab, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. SSRC will independently administer research funding, lead the peer review process, and work with Social Science One to manage the research. Any Facebook data Social Science One determines is within the agreed upon scope and legally allowed may be used for research. No research funding will come from Facebook.

Visit SocialScience.One for more information.

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