Since around 2010, researchers and academics have been able to access Facebook data sets for the purpose of research projects. In order to use profile information or post quizzes to the platform to collect responses, scholars submit an application describing their project and how they plan to use that data.
Furthermore, political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica has recently come under fire for accessing the accounts of 50 million Facebook users through the use of a research app developed by Cambridge University researcher Aleksandr Kogan.
The app, called “thisismydigitallife” was downloaded by 270,000 people and collected information from those individuals as well as all their Facebook friends. When collected for commercial purposes, this data is often used to create an advertising profile of each user. When used for research purposes, academics are not permitted to share user information with third parties — rules which Kogan is said to have violated.
According to several researchers from Canadian and North American universities, Facebook data is frequently accessed for academic research and political campaigns — along with the data of other social networking platforms — to determine the preferences and leanings of participants.
So how do third-party apps and seemingly-fun quizzes help psychologically profile Facebook users? This process is similar to how information is mined for commercial purposes.
Alex Hanna, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto and a social media expert, explained that when producing political advertisements for example, firms attempt to use information about you that ism’t political in nature to make connections to the users’ voting preferences.
“A lot of the psychometric work that’s been done on political advertising, especially in micro-political advertising, tries to find out how things that you like on Facebook and how the things that you interact with can possibly be predictive of voting preferences or of political leanings,” Hanna said.
Hanna said that the majority of apps downloaded and quizzes taken directly on Facebook’s platform are designed by for-profit corporations attempting to develop an advertising profile of those users for commercial purposes.
When using the information for academic purposes, researchers need to sign contracts in which they agree to use the information ethically and appropriately.
“As a researcher, I’m appreciative of them allowing academics to access their data because it is invaluable for research,” explained Gerald Kane, an associate professor at Boston College who’s been teaching about social media for more than a decade. “I actually do sign a lot of contracts that outline what [the information] can be used for, how you plan to handle it,” continued Kane, who himself has requested access to Wikipedia information for research purposes.
Kane also confirmed that collecting data from those who not only agree to participate in the study, but all their other Facebook friends as well, was fairly standard up until this practice was terminated by the social media giant around 2015. Kane explains that this practice is also what makes the controversy around Cambridge Analytica so uncomfortable for consumers.
“What makes this so disturbing from both a data and a user perspective is that when someone agreed to Kogan’s study, they agreed to share information about all their friends.”
Kane and Hanna both agree that another incident like Cambridge Analytica’s use of information from Kogan’s study will happen again unless the rules around data collection are clarified.
“Considering they have two billion people on the platform, there are different ways they can misuse this data. How much of our data is ever safe?” Kane asks.
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