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Facebook said on Monday that it will give a team of independent academic researchers access to its proprietary user data in an effort to assess the role of social media in elections.
With backing from a bevy of funders, Facebook will form an outside commission of academic scholars who will then develop a research agenda about the impact of social media on democracy. Facebook said the research "will be entirely forward looking" instead of trying to reanalyze Russia's interference in the 2016 election.
Facebook insists that the research effort will use annonymized, privacy-protected data for the sole purpose of understanding and improving social media's impact on society. Moreover, Facebook says it will not have approval over the research topics or findings.
"Our goals are to understand Facebook's impact on upcoming elections -- like Brazil, India, Mexico and the US midterms -- and to inform our future product and policy decisions," Facebook executives said in a blog post.
The funders of the initiative include The Knight Foundation, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Charles Koch Foundation, Democracy Fund, Laura and John Arnold Foundation, and Omidyar Network.
Facebook said the commission will last for one year and that membership will be determined in the coming weeks.
The move is the latest step in Facebook's redemption strategy following the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, in which the shady analytics firm collected data on up to 87 million Facebook users without their explicit consent. The social network is now working to ease concerns that it's platform can be easily weaponized to influence users.
Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg is set to testify to Congress this week to answer questions surrounding the scandal and how the company handles privacy and user data. In a Facebook post Monday, Zuckerberg said he hopes the research commission will "draw unbiased conclusions about Facebook's role in elections" and hold the company accountable.
"Looking back, it's clear we were too slow identifying election interference in 2016, and we need to do better in future elections," Zuckerberg wrote. "This is a new model of collaboration between researchers and companies, and it's part of our commitment to protect the integrity of elections around the world."
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