Facebook Is Trying To Help Election Security, But May Be Violating People’s Privacy Expectations In The Process

Eric Lieberman | Tech and Law Reporter

Facebook is set to provide a group of academics with access to user data so they can help the company address social media’s influence on elections.

“This is a new model for partnership between academia, and industry that will tackle some of the most important questions about the effect of social media and technology on society,” Elliot Schrage, vice president of communications and public policy at Facebook, wrote in a post Wednesday. “Our goal is to gain public insights from leading academics on these issues, accelerate our work to contribute to democratic processes around the world and promote electoral participation on Facebook.”

The outside group is known as Social Science One, which is reportedly backed by nonprofits like The Charles Koch Foundation and The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Facebook probably needs to give them information about the 2.2 billion users of the platform in order to have the most exhaustive research, and thus the best resources to combat manipulation of its platform — something so many want. But in doing so, it will likely be violating the privacy expectations of its users, which seems to have peaked after a number of recent incidences ostensibly portraying Facebook as a company that cares about profit over privacy or its societal impact.

Schrage says the idea, however, is to supply the group with data without going too far in divulgence.

“Our plan is to provide researchers access to data using state of the art privacy controls — these include synthetic datasets, a process for submitting data queries in a way that preserves user anonymity, and potentially other innovative techniques such as differential privacy,” Schrage continued in his post.

Nevertheless, the initiative appears to epitomize the conundrum that Facebook is in (or arguably put itself in). After complaints from portions of the public that it doesn’t do enough to stop abuse, misinformation, foreign interference, nor protect user data, Facebook is scrambling to satisfy all areas of concern. In the process, it may be undertaking inherently conflicting endeavors, as understanding its effects may require the in-depth analysis of users’ traits and tendencies. (RELATED: Facebook Spent Millions Lobbying The Government Over The Years. Has It Been A Total Waste?)

Facebook declined to comment, but referenced Schrage’s most recent post, as well as an official company one from April.

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