Zuckerberg launches Facebook research effort to protect elections

The social network says the initiative will help researchers figure out the effect social media has on democracy.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
3 min read

Facebook is launching an election research commission, Zuckerberg said on Monday.

James Martin/CNET

Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook want a status update on the relationship between social media and elections. 

The massive social network on Monday launched a new initiative designed to help scholars research the impact of social media on elections. The move comes a day before Facebook's founder and CEO is set to testify to Congress on data misappropriated and used by Cambridge Analytica during the 2016 US presidential election campaign. 

Social media has had a significant presence in recent elections -- so much so that companies like Facebook and Twitter have been feeling political pressure from lawmakers in both the US and Europe worried about the rapid spread of propaganda and conspiracy theories online. Senators have slammed Facebook in the past, introducing legislation that would regulate online political ads.

As social networks struggle to stamp out political interference, Facebook is introducing an academic twist.

"You know, you can't just give people a voice," Zuckerberg told The Atlantic on Monday. "You need to also make sure that that voice is not used for foreign interference in elections or disseminating fake news."

In a post on his Facebook page, Zuckerberg said one of his top priorities for 2018 is making sure elections stay safe from interference on the social network. He said the company is establishing an "independent election research commission that will solicit research on the effects of social media on elections and democracy." 

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The commission will work with US academic experts, who will come up with topics and select independent scholars to research them. These researchers will have access to Facebook's resources and can share the work publicly without approval from Facebook. 

"Looking back, it's clear we were too slow identifying election interference in 2016, and we need to do better in future elections," Zuckerberg said.

The look back takes into account election interference from Russian trolls, as well as meddling in the Brexit campaign. Facebook also noted in its blog post that it's fought against foreign interference in elections in France, Germany and Italy, as well as Alabama. 

"The last two years have taught us that the same Facebook tools that help politicians connect with their constituents — and different communities debate the issues they care about — can also be misused to manipulate and deceive," Facebook's vice president of communications and public policy, Elliot Schrage, and director of research, David Ginsberg, wrote in a blog post.

Facebook said it isn't funding the research, which instead will be paid for by seven foundations: the John and Laura Arnold Foundation, Democracy Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, the Omidyar Network, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Facebook is hoping to have research in time for upcoming elections like the US midterms later this year, as well as elections in Brazil, India and Mexico. 

First published at 6:31 a.m. PT.
Update at 11:09 a.m. PT: Adds details from Zuckerberg on the commission's goals. 

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