Why We Desperately Need More Research on Social Media’s Effects on Democracy

A new book argues academic researchers should have more access to the data locked inside Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms.

Illustration by Judy Zhang for the Center for Social Media and Politics.

By Venuri Siriwardane

The employees of the platforms are the only ones who really know the scale of the problems widely attributed to them.”

Nathaniel Persily and Joshua Tucker wrote that statement in their new book, which explores the field of social media research and brings a major limitation into sharp focus: Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other platforms are the sole keepers of data that academic and independent researchers need to investigate and understand how social media shapes democracy.

Persily is a professor at Stanford Law School and co-director of the university’s Cyber Policy Center, while Tucker is a professor of politics at NYU and co-director of its Center for Social Media and Politics. Together, they edited a volume that draws a straight line from the utopianism of the early internet — with its promises to build community and subvert antidemocratic forces around the world — to a post-2016 world, in which public discussion of the relationship between social media and politics is dominated by the spread of false news, foreign and domestic actors launching disinformation campaigns to target voters, and fringe conspiracy movements gaining traction online and propelling their devotees to victory in U.S. congressional primary races.

Titled Social Media and Democracy: The State of the Field and Prospects for Reform, the book was published by Cambridge University Press, is out via open access online, and will be available in hardcover and paperback on September 3. It includes chapters written by leading scholars of disinformation, hate speech, and political advertising among other topics. The final chapter was written by Persily and Tucker. It details the challenges researchers face in trying to access social media data, and the tremendous opportunities should “those of us on the outside” unlock that data, analyze it, and release our findings to policymakers and the broader public.

I reached out to Persily and Tucker via Zoom to discuss the book’s main points. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Siriwardane:

Persily:

We thought it was important to combine research findings from social scientists who’ve been analyzing these problems with a discussion of major policy interventions around social media. We put it all in one place so that people who are interested in policy can be exposed to the research, while those who are focused on the empirical findings can understand some of the policy disagreements. There is no other book that does that.

Tucker:

The result was a book in which the first seven chapters look like they could have come out of the Annual Review of Political Science, while the latter chapters look like they could have come out of a policy briefing. We show how these policy debates are responding to things people think are happening on the internet, and on social media platforms in particular. But that first half of the book is where you can go to find out how much — and in many cases, how little — we actually know about the assumptions underlying those policy debates. That’s what ties everything together.

Much of the conventional wisdom about social media’s effects on democracy is not just wrong, but it’s also dangerous — especially when it affects policy.

Siriwardane:

Persily:

Tucker:

This informs the three main threads of the book: The first thread is this demand after 2016 for policy around social media, whether it’s regulating hate speech or political ads, or breaking up the platforms. The second thread is that discussion becomes largely informed by the pundit class, who often rely on anecdotal evidence, partly because systematically analyzing social media data is really, really hard. It often requires large collaborative teams with the ability to collect, store, and analyze very large collections of data. The third thread is that all of sudden the data necessary to analyze what’s going on with social media is owned by these giant companies. That means the very platforms we need to study to try to understand some of the most pressing questions about our democracy also control access to much of the data needed to do so.

Persily and Tucker’s book is available via open access here.

Siriwardane:

Persily:

Tucker:

Siriwardane:

Persily:

Tucker:

I also want to note the importance of academic researchers in solving this problem. Academics are particularly valuable here because we are rewarded for putting what we’ve learned into the public domain. That’s the nature of our profession. There are plenty of good reasons to support making social media data available to potential economic competitors of the platforms, as well as to NGOs and civil society groups, but these actors can accomplish their goals without sharing what they’ve learned from their data analysis with the public. Conversely, the currency of academia is publishing, or putting what we’ve learned into the public domain. That’s why we keep making such a forceful case for making more social media data available to academic researchers.

The only people who are analyzing the data — and gaining all the scientific insights from studying it — are employees of the platforms. It means the single greatest dataset ever compiled for understanding human behavior is, in the short term, going to be used to maximize the profits of Google and Facebook.

Siriwardane:

Persily:

Tucker:

Siriwardane:

Persily:

Tucker:

That’s why we need to begin to think about the tradeoffs between two competing “goods”: protecting people’s online privacy, and ensuring the vast amounts of data being collected by a small number of giant corporations can be used to benefit society, as opposed to just those corporations.

Venuri Siriwardane is the Researcher/Editor at the Center for Social Media and Politics. She holds a master’s degree in Politics and Communication from the London School of Economics, where her research interests included political legitimacy in postcolonial states. In a previous life, she worked as a business journalist in New York.

This piece was originally published on August 29, 2020.

Read the Original Medium Post Here.