UPDATED 11:55 EST / NOVEMBER 21 2023


Meta opens up data from Instagram and Facebook for researchers

In a push for more transparent support for independent research of the social impact of Instagram and Facebook, Meta Platforms Inc. today announced that it’s launching new tools that will provide researchers with greater access to data.

These new tools were initially released in beta access to researchers a few months ago after the company teamed up with the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research at the University of Michigan to allow researchers to analyze data in a secure data enclave. Now, after receiving feedback on the Meta Content Library and the API endpoints, Meta is prepared to release the tools more broadly to select researchers.

This release comes at a time when Meta is facing increased scrutiny from global regulators over its recommendation algorithms and its data capture decisions, especially from the European Union. The EU has one of the most comprehensive data privacy laws in the world with the General Data Protection Regulation and the Digital Services Act. Meta sought to comply with the DSA in August by enabling greater transparency on its social media platforms by allowing European users to turn off recommendation algorithms.

The Meta Content Library and API tools will go a step further by providing comprehensive access to content across Facebook and Instagram, beyond any research tools that the company has built to date. Meta said in its announcement that it will help it meet new regulatory requirements on data-sharing by providing near real-time access to the public content from Pages, Posts, Groups and Events on Facebook, and creator and business accounts on Instagram.

Data about the content and interactions, including the number of reactions, shares, comments and post views will also be available.

Although the content itself is publicly available, the library and API endpoints are designed to make accessing the data as easy to connect to as possible. Using the library, researchers will be able to explore and filter content with a graphical user interface, which will give them a visual way to display and view the content. The API will allow them to import the data into whatever third-party system they need programmatically.

These tools are not accessible to just anyone, however, Meta said that it will open them up to “individuals from qualified institutions pursuing scientific or public interest research topics” who will have to apply for access through third-party partners who will secure the data for research purposes. The first of these partners is ICPSR, which will provide a secure sandbox called the Social Media Archive Virtual Data Enclave that will allow researchers to safely mine the trove of API data.

“There’s a big difference between data being publicly available on the platform versus being able to access it programmatically in a way where you can get access to a large volume of that data,” Kiran Jagadeesh, a Meta product manager, told MIT Technology Review.

In 2018, the company, then Facebook Inc., faced a data privacy scandal when it failed to disclose the extent of data harvesting on its social networking platforms including the now infamous data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica. As a result of the scandal, Facebook was slapped with fines in the UK, as well as investigations and lawsuits in the U.S.

Over the years, even more regulatory requirements involving data privacy and user involvement in feeds and algorithmic decisions on social apps have been laid down by governments. Meta said these new data-sharing and transparency tools will help the company remain in compliance.

Meta said in its announcement that it’s releasing these tools to researchers early in the development process to give the company an opportunity to improve them and make them as widely available as possible. The company added that it will continue to make improvements as feedback is collected.

Image: Meta

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