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

Summary List Placement

Facebook was first warned in late 2015 that Cambridge Analytica was misusing data illicitly harvested from millions of Americans in an attempt to sway the 2016 US elections.

It didn’t pull the plug on the firm’s access to user data until March 2018 after reporting from The Guardian turned the breach into a global scandal.

More than two years later — and barely two months 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 democracy, announcing last week that it would partner with 17 researchers to study the impact of Facebook and Instagram on voters’ attitudes and actions.

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

“Isn’t this a little bit too late?” Fadi Quran, a campaign director with nonprofit research group Avaaz, told Business Insider.

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

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 story.

Since the company is leaving it to the research team to decide which questions to ask and draw their own conclusions — a good thing — we don’t yet know much about what they hope to learn. In its initial announcement, Facebook said it’s curious about: “whether social media makes us more polarized as a society, or if it largely reflects the divisions that already exist; if it helps people to become better informed about politics, or less; or if it affects people’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 help polarize and radicalize people — and that they knowingly shut down efforts to fix the issue or even research it more.

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

“A lot of the focus of this work is very much about how honest players are using these systems,” Laura Edelson, a researcher who studies political ads and misinformation at New York University, told Business Insider.

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

Quran echoed that assessment, 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 content that’s been created by these actors and that’s influencing public opinion.”

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

But political information is much more nuanced and constantly evolving, and even in what seem to be clear-cut 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 may not capture the full impact of aspects of the platform like its algorithms, billions of fake accounts, or private groups.

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

Quran also said, though it’s too early say this will happen for sure, that because it’s Facebook asking users directly within their apps to join the study, sometimes in exchange for payment, 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 conspiracy'” to spy on users or keep Republicans off the platform ahead of the election, he said. “What this could lead to, potentially, is that the people most impacted by disinformation are not even part of the study.”

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

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 rights audit, the company has made few commitments to implement any of the auditors’ recommendations.

Join the conversation about this story »

Related posts

Bernell Trammell death: Milwaukee shooting victim’s memory stays alive

He ‘gave freedom to everyone’s voice’: A week after shooting death of Bernell Trammell, friends keep his legacy alive

Sophie Carson
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published 12:00 AM EDT Aug 1, 2020

Bernell Trammell spent his life starting conversations.

He loved hearing what passing strangers had to say. Trammell eagerly sought out discussion — on sidewalks, homemade signs in hand, and through submissions to his publication, eXpressions Journal.

“Everybody has a voice. Everybody’s voice has power,” longtime friend Pia Lombardi recalled Trammell saying.

When he was shot and killed last week outside his Riverwest office, Trammell’s own voice was silenced, Lombardi said.

But at a vigil for him Friday, his memory and message remained vibrant. Friends recalled his good nature and willingness to chat, and neighbors said the city lost an irreplaceable local character.

“Milwaukee, the east side, Riverwest — we’re going to miss him. Because he was very vocal,” said neighborhood resident Alicia Williams. 

Because Trammell was outspoken about religion and politics — and supported President Donald Trump — some suspect he was targeted for his beliefs. Prominent conservatives have called for a federal investigation into his death, and the suspicion of a political motivation made national news and gained traction on social media.

Lombardi said she even received an invitation to appear on commentator Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show.

Milwaukee police have not released any information about possible motives for the killing.

Trammell also carried signs supporting the Black Lives Matter Movement and state Sen. Lena Taylor, a Democrat.

Those who knew Trammell said they don’t know why he was killed and can’t understand why anyone would shoot him. More than a week after his death, they don’t have any answers. Police have asked the public’s help in looking for a suspect in the shooting and have offered a cash reward for tips. 

Malcolm Hunt, a chaplain for the Milwaukee Police Department, speaks and prays for his friend Bernell Trammell during a memorial vigil.
Rick Wood / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Nate Fox of Milwaukee called Trammell a “gentle beast” who was genuinely interested in hearing different perspectives.

About 15 years ago, Fox used to see Trammell around Riverwest, dressed in a leather jacket and leather chaps.

“He didn’t look like a very approachable guy,” Fox laughed. “But if you would actually have a conversation with him you would see that he’s genuine, that he would hear you out.”

Fox, an atheist at the time, started going to Trammell with questions about religion. He didn’t know many Christians, and Trammell never judged him, he said.

Eventually Fox converted to Christianity. He credits Trammell for those early eye-opening conversations that challenged his stereotypes on what people of faith looked and acted like.

Trammell “gave freedom to everyone’s voice,” said Clayton Hotelling, a Milwaukee pastor and social worker. “It didn’t matter where you were from.”

In the 1990s Hotelling used to read eXpressions Journal and even submitted his artwork to the publication a few times. He appreciated that Trammell gave a platform to opinions of all kinds without judgment — the willingness to hear someone out has been lost in today’s political discourse, he said.

Hotelling was driving with a friend on the east side two days before Trammell’s death and saw him on the sidewalk holding a Trump sign. Hotelling honked his horn, and Trammell gave them a thumbs-up.

“It touched our heart because that was the last time we saw him,” Hotelling said.

Bernell Trammell of Milwaukee takes a photo with his cellphone while with son, Bernell Trammell Jr., 7, at a control burn at Alice Bertschy Kadish Park in Milwaukee on May 7, 2013. Trammell was fatally shot outside his office in Riverwest on July 23, 2020.
Mike De Sisti / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Patricia Holland also saw Trammell shortly before his death — she estimates about 30 minutes prior.

Holland maintains church gardens in Riverwest and headed last Thursday to Trammell’s shop to plant some flowers in his new flower beds. She left him laughing, promising to water the plants that evening.

Then from her home Holland heard what she thought were firecrackers. She followed police cars to the scene and saw paramedics performing CPR. But she knew Trammell hadn’t made it.

“A whole chill came over me,” she said.

Trammell deserves for his killer to be found, Holland said. Somebody in the neighborhood knows something, she said, pointing to the surrounding apartments and homes.

And Trammell deserves for his legacy to live on. Lombardi, who lived with Trammell in the 1990s in the apartment above his office, plans to buy the building on East Wright Street. 

She wants to continue publishing eXpressions Journal. Trammell’s voice may have been silenced, but he’d want Milwaukee to keep talking.

Contact Sophie Carson at (414) 223-5512 or scarson@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SCarson_News.

Related posts