Meta responds to calls for greater transparency with a new research database

Recent moves by regulators, particularly in the European Union, may have pushed Meta’s hand with mandates for greater transparency. The EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA), which went into effect in August, requires that big platforms the size of Meta provide access to real-time data to researchers investigating “the detection, identification, and understanding of systemic risks in the Union.” Other regulatory efforts in Australia, Brazil, the US, and elsewhere have attempted to mimic these requirements. In what’s known as the Brussels’s effect, tech companies often comply with the strictest standards, usually set by the EU, in every country they operate to avoid fragmentation in their products. 

Policy efforts have struggled to balance demands for greater transparency with concerns about privacy protections. Clegg said that Meta has attempted to balance these competing demands, in part through the application process. 

Researchers looking to access the Content Library and API have to submit information about their institution and research questions to the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research, an independent organization at the University of Michigan. Meta says the screening is primarily intended to provide a security check about the groups using the data and their financial interests, rather than scrutinize the research questions. 

The application process, though, has already raised some eyebrows. Smitha Milli, a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell Tech who studies the impact of social media, says, “my main question is why isn’t this accessible to everyone?”—especially since the Content Library only contains publicly available data. They also say it’s important to consider the amount of time the application process will add to the research cycle, saying it could be “super limiting.” 

(Meta said access to the Content Library was limited to protect user privacy: “There’s a big difference between data being publicly available on the platform versus being able to access it programmatically in a way where you can get access to a large volume of that data,” said Kiran Jagadeesh, a Meta product manager for the Content Library.)

Milli notes that researchers in the space really want access to information about how recommendation algorithms work and what people are seeing on their individual feeds, as well as ways to run experiments on the platforms. It’s not clear how the latest product will make progress on those fronts, though Clegg said researchers can pair the Content Library with other projects, like their recommendation system cards, which combined will give “a much, much richer picture than was ever possible.”  

Lena Frischlich, a professor at the Digital Democracy Centre at the University of Southern Denmark, tested the beta version of the Content Library and said her team found the access to multimedia content, like reels on Instagram, and events on Facebook particularly useful, as well as the new data it provides about view counts. 

Frisclich also says that while the new product is “an important next step towards more transparency,” she qualifies that “data access is still somehow restricted” since not every country is included in the database and only researchers at qualifying academic institutions are granted access.

Clegg said he hopes that the new tool ultimately leads to better research about the role of social media in society, for multiple reasons. “I think there’s a sort of societal sense of responsibility here,” he said, “but also a self-interest in seeking to dispel some of the hyperbole that surrounds social media and to have the debate more grounded in fact.”

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