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Facebook data now accessible to UC researchers

Elly Mackay

24 February 2020: Researchers from the News and Media Research Centre at the University of Canberra have been announced as the only Australian recipients of a $50,000 USD ($75,000 AUD) grant that will allow them to access raw data from Facebook for analysis.

United States based organisation Social Science Research Council announced on Thursday that they had selected the team, led by Dr Sora Park, as one of several worldwide to work as part of the initiative. Through the Social Science One program, the team will get access to the data following almost two years of negotiations with Facebook.

In 2018, Social Science Once put the call out to academics worldwide to partner with them to break-down the masses of Facebook data available. In turn, the academics may use the data for their own further research.

Dr Park’s team will focus on mapping how Australians access and share news on social media, and how Facebook users respond and react to that information. Their study – Framing and Sharing News on Social Media - will be the one of the first to map the news consumption and circulation of Australians on the social platform.

“We are going to be using the grant to see how much of an impact Facebook has in the news space,” Dr Park said.

“Previously Facebook hasn’t released any data to show the quantity and type of news people see on Facebook. Now, we will be able to use this new data to measure how traditional sources of news compete with newer news outlets.”

As part of the study, the group will compare the Facebook data to the results of the Digital News Report, which they have conducted in the last five years.

“We endeavour to map out the kind of information people are inclined to share and see what proportion of that is actually news, rather than interesting stories.”

Defining what constitutes news will be the first step, with Dr Park saying that traditional news outlets are beginning to change their content to compete with lifestyle outlets like Buzzfeed.

“It can be a blurry area as to what people consider to be news,” Dr Park said.

“We will mainly focus on professional sources of news with a long brand history - for example the ABC or the Sydney Morning Herald - and assess how those sources are different from newer types of information.”

The application process, which began in mid-2018, involved Dr Park and her team adhering to a series of requisites prior to submission.

“A condition of the grant application was having ethical approval for the research prior to applying. Facebook and the researchers involved are deeply aware of potential privacy issues and ensuring that the protection of personal data is of the utmost priority,” Dr Park said.

For this, Facebook and Social Science One are using multiple layers of privacy protection, and have adopted a differential privacy model.

“The group is comprised of University of Canberra researchers who are experts in the field of news and media, so that also formed a basis for our application,” said Dr Park.

Executive Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Design at the University of Canberra Professor Jason Bainbridge congratulated those involved throughout the application process.

“This is a fantastic result and full credit to everyone in the team for the high standard of work they have engaged in throughout the process,” he said.

“It’s a real testament to the sustained quality of their work over a number of years.”