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Facebook ‘not aware’ of Canadian applicants for data research program

Briefs | 03/01/2019 1:41 pm EDT

Despite heightened interest in the impact of social media on Canadian elections, Facebook Inc. said it has not heard of any Canadian institutions that have applied to view the social media giant’s data sets.

Facebook has been embroiled in controversy over its data practices. Last year, it partnered with a commission of senior academics, known collectively as Social Science One, to share its data sets with the goal of studying the role of social media in elections and democracy. But in order to get access to the data, institutions must apply.

The commission, which said it can’t report who applies, is expected to announce the first batch of winning research proposals “in a few weeks,” spokeswoman Michelle Mulkey said in an email on Friday.

On Monday, during a panel about artificial intelligence and elections security, Facebook Canada’s head of public policy Kevin Chan said, “to my regret, I’m not aware that we’ve had Canadian applicants.”

In a follow-up email, Chan said Facebook has encouraged research organizations in the country to apply, but didn’t hear from any. Facebook is not involved in the process of reviewing or selecting participants and doesn’t see applications.

The first request for proposals for academic researchers around the world went out last July, the month the third-party commission launched, for the anonymized, privacy-protected Facebook data. The first data set involves information and misinformation and includes a petabyte of information from “almost all public URLs Facebook users globally have clicked on, when, and by what types of people,” including links determined to be intentionally false news stories by third-party checkers.  

“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,” says a Social Science One press release.

The application requires a project description, resume, letter of support and a budget, which can’t exceed $50,000. It grants the successful applicant up to 12 months of access to the data and must submit a project report every six months and a final report at the end of the grant period. It must submit results to Facebook, Social Science One, and the Social Science Research Council, which will make the findings public.

There has been no shortage of debate among academics in this country about what to do to shield October’s federal election from undue influence. The government has put in place measures to try and bolster that protection, including putting $7 million toward a digital literacy initiative, requiring online platforms to make publicly-available an ad registry to track that activity, and regularly consulting with the social media companies about threats. It has also said it expects the platforms to take down illegal content.

Facebook was the first company to partner with the independent research body. The research is funded by nonprofit foundations and receives logistical help from Harvard University. The commission said it hopes to use data from other companies and industries in the future.

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