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Academic joins committee overseeing researchers’ access to Facebook data

Dr Marco Bastos among experts invited to take part in new Social Science One initiative

by Ed Grover

A researcher from City, University of London has joined a new committee of experts who will oversee the release of Facebook data to academics around the world.

Dr Marco Bastos, a Senior Lecturer in Media and Communications, will work with other leading researchers from Harvard University and Stanford University as part of the Social Science One initiative.

The team will operate independently from Facebook to decide which research projects should be allowed access to data from the platform.

The initiative has been launched in collaboration with the Social Science Research Council with the aim of enabling academics to investigate the impact of social media on elections and democracy.

Until now, the vast amount of information held by Facebook about human behaviour has been largely inaccessible to the academic community.

Dr Bastos, who is part of Social Science One’s European regional committee, said: “The initiative is led by Nate Persily from Stanford and Gary King from Harvard and it's a considerable undertaking that will hopefully grow to include several social media platforms. Facebook should be releasing some important data sets within this initiative, which I expect to be quite helpful for the academic community.”

The City academic’s recent work has included analysis of Twitter debates during the EU referendum campaign, and the discovery of a network of Twitter bots operating in the weeks before the Brexit vote.

He has also studied social media discussion during the Occupy Gezi movement in Turkey, profiled serial transnational Twitter activists and investigated the links between social media activity and protests in Brazil.

Under the Social Science One initiative, researchers will have the freedom to publish their findings without approval from Facebook. The privacy of Facebook users will also be protected.

However, Dr Bastos says the demands of the model will be a big challenge for the new organisation.

“The initiative is highly centralised, including the decision-making process of establishing viable research designs,” he said. “This is a considerable challenge compounded by the multitude of stakeholders and the technical challenges in offering a solution that works for researchers across disciplines and national contexts.”

The first privacy-protected data set that researchers may propose to analyse 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.

Funding for Social Science One comes from seven charitable foundations.

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