Skip to Content
Silicon Valley

Facebook will open its data up to academics to see how it impacts elections

April 30, 2019
Guests mingle before a tour of Facebook's new office in Cambridge, Massachusetts
Guests mingle before a tour of Facebook's new office in Cambridge, MassachusettsAssociated Press

More than 60 researchers from 30 institutions will get access to Facebook user data to study its impact on elections and democracy, and how it’s used by advertisers and publishers.

A vast trove: Facebook will let academics see which websites its users linked to from January 2017 to February 2019. Notably, that means they won’t be able to look at the platform’s impact on the US presidential election in 2016, or on the Brexit referendum in the UK in the same year.

Despite this slightly glaring omission, it’s still hard to wrap your head around the scale of the data that will be shared, given that Facebook is used by 1.6 billion people every day. That’s more people than live in all of China, the most populous country on Earth. It will be one of the largest data sets on human behavior online to ever be released.

The process: Facebook didn’t pick the researchers. They were chosen by the Social Science Research Council, a US nonprofit. Facebook has been working on this project for over a year, as it tries to balance research interests against user privacy and confidentiality.

Privacy: In a blog post, Facebook said it will use a number of statistical techniques to make sure the data set can’t be used to identify individuals. Researchers will be able to access it only via a secure portal that uses a VPN and two-factor authentication, and there will be limits on the number of queries they can each run.

The context: Facebook is keen to improve its reputation after months of scandals over data privacy, security, and its role in elections and democracy. If it opens up its data as promised, it could introduce some much-needed light into what’s often a very heated debate.

Sign up here to get your dose of the latest must-read news from the world of emerging tech in our daily newsletter The Download.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

This startup wants to copy you into an embryo for organ harvesting

With plans to create realistic synthetic embryos, grown in jars, Renewal Bio is on a journey to the horizon of science and ethics.

VR is as good as psychedelics at helping people reach transcendence

On key metrics, a VR experience elicited a response indistinguishable from subjects who took medium doses of LSD or magic mushrooms.

This nanoparticle could be the key to a universal covid vaccine

Ending the covid pandemic might well require a vaccine that protects against any new strains. Researchers may have found a strategy that will work.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.