Learning to Share: Lessons on Data-Sharing from Beyond Social Media

Paper by CDT: “What role has social media played in society? Did it influence the rise of Trumpism in the U.S. and the passage of Brexit in the UK? What about the way authoritarians exercise power in India or China? Has social media undermined teenage mental health? What about its role in building social and community capital, promoting economic development, and so on?

To answer these and other important policy-related questions, researchers such as academics, journalists, and others need access to data from social media companies. However, this data is generally not available to researchers outside of social media companies and, where it is available, it is often insufficient, meaning that we are left with incomplete answers.

Governments on both sides of the Atlantic have passed or proposed legislation to address the problem by requiring social media companies to provide certain data to vetted researchers (Vogus, 2022a). Researchers themselves have thought a lot about the problem, including the specific types of data that can further public interest research, how researchers should be vetted, and the mechanisms companies can use to provide data (Vogus, 2022b).

For their part, social media companies have sanctioned some methods to share data to certain types of researchers through APIs (e.g., for researchers with university affiliations) and with certain limitations (such as limits on how much and what types of data are available). In general, these efforts have been insufficient. In part, this is due to legitimate concerns such as the need to protect user privacy or to avoid revealing company trade secrets.  But, in some cases, the lack of sharing is due to other factors such as lack of resources or knowledge about how to share data effectively or resistance to independent scrutiny.

The problem is complex but not intractable. In this report, we look to other industries where companies share data with researchers through different mechanisms while also addressing concerns around privacy. In doing so, our analysis contributes to current public and corporate discussions about how to safely and effectively share social media data with researchers. We review experiences based on the governance of clinical trials, electricity smart meters, and environmental impact data…(More)”