New Approaches to Platform Data Research



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Published date: February 25, 2021

Author: Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, Michael Sugarman, Fernando Bernejo, Ethan Zuckerman

Subject tag: Advertising | Data Access | Privacy and data protection

Social media platforms — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit and others — have taken center stage in contemporary debates about the health of civic participation and democracy as a whole. As scholars, journalists and activists struggle to understand a wave of right-wing populism and the popularity of conspiracy theories and cultural conflicts over the coronavirus pandemic, social media has become a popular target of scrutiny as an influential factor in the contemporary civic environment.
Our report concludes with a set of recommendations for philanthropic funders and social change organizations, spanning the gamut from short term to long term strategies, and including approaches that push legal boundaries. In part, we recommend:
● Legislative action to create a “safe harbor” for researchers to access social media data, protecting research from some types of prosecution under CFAA and related”anti-hacking” laws
● Robust dialogue between privacy activists and researchers about legally safe and ethical approaches to accessing platform data
● Support for ethical standards and practices around social media platform data collection and analysis
● Support for new and ongoing experiments in social media data donation and panel studies, two promising approaches to understanding what users are exposed to across social media platforms
● Support for unauthorized indices of social media platform data, including ongoing work to index the content of platforms with a history of permitting extremist and hate speech
● Hold platforms responsible for their advertising, content moderation and other behaviors through regular audits conducted either by outside auditing bodies or through a movement towards internal best practice audits
● Regulatory action that treats large platform companies as common carriers, subjecting companies to stricter oversight and auditing.
● Support the creation of new types of social media platforms designed from creation for study and monitoring by outside researchers.
[This entry was sourced with minor edits from the Carnegie Endowment’s Partnership for Countering Influence Operations and its baseline datasets initiative. You can find more information here:]