The day before Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress to defend the social network, Facebook announced: “a new initiative to help provide independent, credible research about the role of social media in elections, as well as democracy more generally.”
The public on both sides of the aisle is clamoring for answers in the wake of the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the larger question of Russian influence during the run-up to the 2016 election. Could Americans finally get the answers they’ve been seeking?
According to the announcement, the initiative will be funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation; the Democracy Fund, which was founded by eBay’s Pierre Omidyar; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; the Charles Koch Foundation (formerly the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation); the Omidyar Network; and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Sure, it seems well-funded.
It’s unclear how much each foundation is contributing to the project, though Hewlett is considered a leader of the effort.
“At the heart of this initiative,” the Facebook says, “will be a group of scholars who will” form a commission to “define the research agenda; solicit proposals for independent research on a range of different topics; and manage a peer review process to select scholars who will receive funding for their research, as well as access to privacy-protected datasets from Facebook which they can analyze.”
“Facebook will not have any right to review or approve their research findings prior to publication,” it adds.
Skeptics might dismiss the announcement as part of a public relations effort to avert a deeper crisis on the part of Facebook. Several questions do come to mind, and scrutiny is warranted. But, given that the announcement just occurred, it may be a tad unfair to expect answers just yet. As we learn more, it will be wise to keep a lookout for answers to these questions:
Who was invited?
Facebook and some of the funders in the consortium say they are proud of its ideological diversity, and Koch’s and maybe Arnold’s inclusion in the group make that claim plausible, at least for now. Koch, in particular, is in a strong position to validate the project. The possibility of a high-profile protest exit from Koch could act as a check against ideological bias from the Left. It would be very interesting to know whether any other conservative or libertarian givers were approached to join.
Who will sit on the commission and how will it be governed?
Commission members have not yet been named. They will be selected “[i]n consultation with the foundations funding the initiative,” the Facebook announcement says. How will that actually work? Do the foundations have veto power in the naming of members? Does funding-consortium membership get you a certain number of commission members? If so, how many? Is it dependent on how much funding?
Facebook and some of the funders are also touting the exercise’s transparency. Could commission members publish dissenting opinions? Will there be public proceedings?
What is the scope of the research agenda?
Given the past interests of some of its funders, the research agenda could become quite broad. Research that ventures too far afield could damage the integrity of the project. For example, some recommendation regarding “net neutrality” or other tech-policy debates could divide the commission or detract from the body’s credibility on the basic underlying issue.
Should the commission concentrate only on Facebook? Or could the commission fund research into Google, Twitter, Apple, and Amazon, too?
Will there be competing research?
What if another body wanted to create a “Team B” to contribute its own research and analysis to the same important issues, could it have the same privacy-protected access to the same underlying datasets used by the Team A commission? This should probably be seriously considered by other givers, wherever on the ideological spectrum. Let’s have a robust discourse.
Answers and Accountability
There will be more questions, of course, for the commission to ask itself—and answer, or perhaps diplomatically avoid answering. Due credit should truly be given for its creation, and maybe a little sympathy accorded to those who will lead and serve on it. But given the group’s importance and high profile, both its funders and members should all be held to close account for the answers.
So: So far, so good. Maybe a little late, but okay. Let’s wait and see how this goes.