Facebook’s next project: American inequality

Nancy Scola at Politico: “Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is quietly cracking open his company’s vast trove of user data for a study on economic inequality in the U.S. — the latest sign of his efforts to reckon with divisions in American society that the social network is accused of making worse.

The study, which hasn’t previously been reported, is mining the social connections among Facebook’s American users to shed light on the growing income disparity in the U.S., where the top 1 percent of households is said to control 40 percent of the country’s wealth. Facebook is an incomparably rich source of information for that kind of research: By one estimate, about three of five American adults use the social network….

Facebook confirmed the broad contours of its partnership with Chetty but declined to elaborate on the substance of the study. Chetty, in a brief interview following a January speech in Washington, said he and his collaborators — who include researchers from Stanford and New York University — have been working on the inequality study for at least six months.

“We’re using social networks, and measuring interactions there, to understand the role of social capital much better than we’ve been able to,” he said.

Researchers say they see Facebook’s enormous cache of data as a remarkable resource, offering an unprecedentedly detailed and sweeping look at American society. That store of information contains both details that a user might tell Facebook — their age, hometown, schooling, family relationships — and insights that the company has picked up along the way, such as the interest groups they’ve joined and geographic distribution of who they call a “friend.”

It’s all the more significant, researchers say, when you consider that Facebook’s user base — about 239 million monthly users in the U.S. and Canada at last count — cuts across just about every demographic group.

And all that information, say researchers, lets them take guesses about users’ wealth. Facebook itself recently patented a way of figuring out someone’s socioeconomic status using factors ranging from their stated hobbies to how many internet-connected devices they own.

A Facebook spokesman addressed the potential privacy implications of the study’s access to user data, saying, “We conduct research at Facebook responsibly, which includes making sure we protect people’s information.” The spokesman added that Facebook follows an “enhanced” review process for research projects, adopted in 2014 after a controversy over a study that manipulated some people’s news feeds to see if it made them happier or sadder.

According to a Stanford University source familiar with Chetty’s study, the Facebook account data used in the research has been stripped of any details that could be used to identify users. The source added that academics involved in the study have gone through security screenings that include background checks, and can access the Facebook data only in secure facilities….(More)”.