Open Facebook to Researchers!

Amongst all the recent complaints against Facebook, the one I find the most problematic is the way in which internal employees have access to an exceptional experimental framework while researchers from outside the company are barred from it.

If Facebook is anything like Google, then its software engineers really are scientists constantly running counterfactual experiments. They deploy any new feature on a subset of users and measure if the proposed change has an impact when compared to a control group. This is hardcore science. It’s good to see companies embracing scientific practices to such an extent.

What is not so good, however, is that external researchers can’t do anything remotely close to that. Their options are limited to:

  • Using analytic tools that offer them an external view onto Facebook. An example is CrowdTangle, acquired by Facebook in 2016 and recently “regorganized”, leading to the departure of its founder and long-time advocate of more transparency, Brandon Silverman. [1]
  • Crowdsourcing data gathering to an army of willing volunteers using a browser plug-in, and sometimes having to stop because Facebook threatens to sue. [2]

So, not only does Facebook block external researchers from operating on the same footing as its internal engineers, it seems to be going out of its ways to make researcher’s lives harder.

There is no denying that Facebook has become a force that shapes society, but we’re mostly blind to the precise way in which it does it.

Does Facebook and its algorithms create filter bubbles? Polarization? Addiction? Infodemics? Doomscrolling? Social anxiety?

Maybe… Probably… I don’t know….

…but it’s precisely the fact that I don’t know and that I could know that is my biggest issue with Facebook.

We need to ask Facebook and all the other society-shaping tech giants to give researchers access to the tools it uses internally. This is the very first step towards the transparency we deserve — if not as individuals, at least as a society.

This post was inspired by this recent piece on researchers using CrowdTangle to study local news on Facebook. Especially by the fact that they had such a hard time to gather data and that they couldn’t derive causal relationships from their experiment.