Two Ohio State researchers will be among the first to study privacy-protected data from Facebook after receiving a grant from the Social Science Research Council. | Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Two Ohio State researchers will be among the first to study privacy-protected data from Facebook after receiving a grant from the Social Science Research Council.

Kelly Garrett, an associate professor of communication, and Robert Bond, an assistant professor of communication and political science, will collaborate with researchers from three other universities to study the way people share “fake news” and the patterns associated with such behavior.

“Ultimately, the goal was to give scholars the chance to actually be able to analyze existing data that represents the behaviors of hundreds of millions of people and to try and answer socially important questions using those data,” Garrett said.

The research will look at how users engage with articles without reading their content, a behavior Garrett said is problematic because some sources are deceptive. The study will also examine when people share false information that fact-checkers claim to be false, as well as patterns of people’s willingness to engage in these behaviors and how they change over time.

Garrett said that the research will also analyze outside influences, such as changes to Facebook’s platform and major social events and how they impact what people share.

In terms of external factors, the 2016 election and the online behavior associated with it played a role in this research project being created, Bond said.

“The 2016 election has given the public a tremendous amount of attention on misinformation,” Bond said. “We think that it’s something that deserves more attention, and the data that Facebook made available are giving us an opportunity to look at those kinds of questions.”

Garrett said that the opportunity to analyze this data is unique because Facebook was not involved in providing the grants or selecting the researchers — they will only be providing the data. However, Bond said the data set they will be working with is so large that the researchers had to be trained on how to analyze it.

“We have a training to go and learn [Facebook’s] systems,” Bond said. “Learning how to work with it will be a significant part of the project itself.”

Despite the predicted size of the data set — “many, many terabytes,” Bond said — Garrett said he was interested in pursuing this project because the data is not based on national surveys or experiments, but people’s everyday interactions online.

The project received funding from an inaugural Social Media and Democracy Research grant through the Social Science Research Council and Social Science One, an organization that seeks to build partnerships between academic institutions and private industry, according to Social Science One’s website. The research on Facebook data will be its first project.

Bond said that as of now, the project has no definite timeline, but once the research is completed, the findings will be presented to Facebook.

Garrett said he hopes that out of this research will come a system of collaboration between academic researchers and industry partners after being among the first to attempt it.

“If we can work through those challenges and help carve a path that other scholars in the future can use so that they can pursue their own questions, they can find ways to effectively collaborate with Facebook or possibly other industry players.”