Facebook wants to know how it’s shaping the 2020 elections — researchers say it’s looking too late and in the wrong places (FB)

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was warned in late 2015 that Cambridge Analytica was misusing illicitly harvested from millions Americans in attempt to sway the 2016 .

It didn’ the plug on the firm’s access to user data until March 2018 after reporting from The Guardian turned the breach into a global .

More than two years later — and barely two before the deadline for votes to cast their ballots in the 2020 elections — Facebook has decided it wants to know more about how it impacts , announcing last week that it would with 17 researchers to the impact of Facebook and on voters’ attitudes and actions.

But researchers outside of the project are conflicted. While they praised Facebook for promising to ensure more and independence than it has before, they also questioned why the company waited and just how much this study really bring to .

“Isn’t this a bit too late?” , a campaign with group , told .

“Facebook has known for a long time that ’s interference, that malicious are using the platform to influence voters,” he . “Why is this only happening now at such a late ?” 

Facebook said it doesn’t “expect to publish any findings until mid-2021 at the earliest.” The company did not reply to a request for comment on this .

company is leaving it to the research to decide which questions to and draw their own conclusions — a good thing — ’t yet know much about what they hope to learn. In its initial announcement, Facebook said it’s curious about: “whether media makes us more polarized as a , or if it largely reflects the divisions that already exist; if it helps to become better informed about , or less; or if it affects ’s attitudes towards government and democracy, including whether and how they vote.”

Facebook executives have reportedly known the answer to that first question — that the company’s algorithms do polarize and radicalize people — and that they knowingly shut down efforts to the issue or even research it more.

But even that aside, researchers say they’ already identified some potential shortcomings in the study.

“A lot of the focus of this is very much about how honest players are using these systems,” Edelson, a who studies political and at , told .

“Where ’m concerned is that they’ almost exclusively not looking at the ways that are going wrong, and that’s where I wish this was going ,” she added.

echoed that , saying: “One big thing that they’re going to miss by not looking more deeply at these malicious actors, and just by the design, is the scale of that’s been created by these actors and that’s influencing .”

A long list of research and have documented Facebook’s struggles to effectively keep political misinformation off its platform — alone misleading health claims, which Facebook’s more aggressive , racked up four times as many views as posts from sites pushing accurate , to Avaaz. 

But political information is much more nuanced and constantly evolving, and even in what seem to be clear- cases, Facebook has, according to reports, at times incorrectly enforced its own policies or bent over backward to avoid possible political backlash.

Quran and Edelson both worried that Facebook’s election study not capture the full impact of aspects of the platform like its algorithms, billions of accounts, or .

find what and for,” Edelson said. “The problem of elections on Facebook is not how the honest actors are working within the system.”

Quran also said, though it’s too say this will happen for sure, that because it’s Facebook asking directly within their to join the study, sometimes in exchange for , it risks inadvertently screening out people who are distrustful of the company to begin with.

“We’re already seeing posts on different groups that share disinformation telling people: ‘Don’t participate in the study, this is a Facebook '” to on users or keep Republicans off the platform of the election, he said. “What this could to, potentially, is that most impacted by disinformation are not even part of the study.”

In a -case scenario, Edelson said the researchers could learn valuable information about how our existing understanding of elections maps onto the . Quran said the study could even serve as an “information ecosystem impact assessment,” similar to impact studies, that would help Facebook understand how changes it could make impact the democratic .

But both were skeptical that Facebook would make major changes based on this study or the 2020 elections more broadly. And Quran warned that, despite Facebook’s efforts to make the study independent, people shouldn’t take the study as definitive or allow it to become a “stamp of approval.”

It took Facebook nearly four years from when it learned about Cambridge Analytica to identify the tens of thousands of apps that were also misusing data. And though it just published the results of its first independent civil audit, the company has made few commitments to implement any of the auditors’ recommendations.

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