The recent investigation in the US by Robert Mueller’s special counsel into the impact of Russia in the 2016 US election entered a new phase after Mueller’s team indicted 13 Russian nationals and 3 Russian organisations for their “conspiracy” to illegally influence the US presidential campaign. Unprecedented in American history, the indictment was a direct and public charge that America’s main foreign adversary meddled extensively, expensively, and expansively in the core of the American democratic process, attempting to influence voters, spread disparaging information about the Democratic nominee, and “help” presidential candidate Donald Trump take office.
In the wake of this news some experts believe that one crucial implication has been missed. That is, we still know far too little about the potential impact of social media on society and individuals alike.
Catherine Brooks, an associate professor of information at the University of Arizona, associate director of the School of information and director of the Digital Society and Data studies says this problem could be easily addressed.
In January, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO, expressed his vision for Facebook moving forward, and making products that are “good for people’s well-being”. Many believe if he truly wanted to embrace this vision then the company should provide academic researchers far more broader access to its data.
Around the world, studies have been underway, and social organisations, academics and even governments have published results finding that social media causes social harm. Zuckerberg has voiced his concerns over the findings and has announced that Facebook aims to tweak its search algorithm again, this time so users would experience the most “meaningful interactions” with friends and family, instead of seeing the “most meaningful content”—that is, news (and sometimes fake news).
Sharing its vast amount of anonymised data with a broad set of academic researchers may be the best way For Facebook to learn more about “meaningful interactions” including the aspects of social media that could be good for people and about digital propaganda.
However, Facebook continues to resist this idea, currently sharing data with only a select few. This limits the ability of society to analyse and understand online behaviours related to elections, mass demonstrations, political attitudes, cyberbullying, identity theft, and much more.
As of now, scholars must depend on sometimes awkward workarounds (user surveys and algorithm audits, for example) to study Facebook’s societal impact.