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University of Michigan School of Information


UMSI researcher among first to study Facebook data

Thursday, 05/02/2019

Researchers at the University of Michigan, Ohio State, Cornell and Stony Brook will be among the first to have access to privacy-protected Facebook data to study social media’s impact on democracy in the United States.

The project was among 12 inaugural recipients of the Social Media and Democracy Research grants from the Social Science Research Council and its partner, Social Science One.

The research team, which includes UMSI assistant professor Ceren Budak, will have unprecedented access to anonymous data from Facebook on the sharing of online content. The team will use these data to examine a variety of behaviors that may pose harmful influences on what people learn about science, politics and their community.

“This is a fantastic development for science,” says Budak. “Social sciences have long suffered from the lack of large-scale behavioral data to test and develop theories. This partnership between academia and the industry to share data in a privacy-preserving fashion will enable future research and a better understanding of human behavior.”

Budak thinks this is also a very important step to improve the integrity and reproducibility of research. 

“Data access limitations have driven researchers to collect data in rather haphazard ways, making various studies on the same topic rather incomparable,” says Budak. “This effort will hopefully result in the emergence of more robust findings that are better contextualized.”

More than 60 researchers from 30 academic institutions around the country were chosen to receive grants through a competitive peer review process organized by SSRC. Facebook, SSRC and Social Science One have built a first-of-its-kind privacy-protecting research infrastructure for the scientists to use for their work.

While the sharing of news that fact-checkers have labeled as false will be one focus of the study, the researchers will also be examining other sharing behaviors that may pose issues.

“We hope to better understand different types of problematic sharing behavior on Facebook, like sharing falsehoods, sharing hyper-partisan content or sharing content without actually reading the associated story,” says Budak. “We are particularly interested in understanding how such behavior changes around crisis events.”

One question the researchers will examine is whether people share problematic posts more often at specific times of day, or times of the year, and whether they are more likely to come from specific parts of the country.

The study will explore how changes that Facebook makes in its platform – such as how messages with questionable content are flagged – affect sharing behavior.

“Social media platforms have, in a number of ways, democratized information access,” says Budak. “Yet the open nature of these spaces also makes it increasingly challenging to assess the quality of information.”

Given the degree to which people rely on these platforms for information pertaining to politics, health and overall well-being, Budak says the need for better systems is evident. 

“But in order to build future technology to support a more robust information access, we first need to better model and understand current trends in problematic sharing behavior,” says Budak.

“I am excited about this project because I believe it is an important step in this direction.”

Budak’s colleagues on the study are Kelly Garrett, associate professor of communication at Ohio State; Robert Bond, assistant professor of communication and political science at Ohio State; Jason Jones, assistant professor of sociology at Stony Brook University; and Drew Margolin, assistant professor of communication at Cornell University.

  - Jessica Webster, UMSI PR Specialist