IDDP Director Joins Major Study of Facebook’s Effect on Elections

Rebekah Tromble and a team of independent researchers will collaborate on a large-scale, opt-in study of social media users’ electoral behavior.

September 8, 2020

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Rebekah Tromble (Photo by Jay Ritchie)

By Ruth Steinhardt

An independent group of scholars including the George Washington University’s Rebekah Tromble will team up with Facebook researchers to conduct a major study of the social media giant’s effect on the 2020 presidential elections this fall. And Facebook, though cooperating with the study, will have no say in the framing or analysis of the results. 

Dr. Tromble, director of the Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics and an associate professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs, said the study presents an unprecedented opportunity.

“It’s absolutely essential that the public understand the impacts of social media on democratic societies, but as researchers we’ve been hampered by our limited access to the data,” she said. “This study is a chance for us to look much more directly and fully at a broad range of information we’ve not had access to before.”

The team of about two dozen Facebook researchers and third-party academics will measure Facebook’s and its subsidiary Instagram’s impact on four key outcomes: political participation, political polarization, knowledge and misperceptions, and trust in American democratic institutions.

Crucially, the project will adhere to the standards of transparency and ethical practice that are generally approved for data collection with human subjects. Facebook and Instagram users will have to give full and informed consent in order to opt in to the study, which will then use multiple research methods, including surveys and behavioral data analysis, to track their activity before the election.

“It’s not like a terms of service checkbox,” Dr. Tromble said of the opt-in process. “Those who agree to participate will see a long explanation of what the study is all about. They’ll be very clearly informed what information is being gathered and that they can withdraw at any time.”

According to Facebook, between 200,000 and 400,000 adults are expected to participate. The process may involve targeted changes to some participants’ experiences with Facebook and Instagram. Participants might see more or fewer ads in specific categories, for instance, or more or fewer posts on specific topics in their news feeds. Some may be asked to stop using Facebook or Instagram for a period of time, and a few may be asked, again with explicit permission, to install an app on their devices that will log other digital media that they consume in order to give researchers a more exact portrait of their information ecosystem.

Dr. Tromble said the study has exciting implications for ethical and effective large-scale cooperation between corporate entities and outside researchers in the future.

“A lot of scholars, myself included, came into this quite skeptical about how it could work,” she said. “But the whole team has been quite thoughtful about how we implement lots of mechanisms to maintain academic independence and make sure we, as external independent researchers, have as much say as possible in the design, interpretation and analysis of our findings.”

A full list of members of the research team is available here. Researchers expect to publish their results in mid-2021.

“In eight or nine months, I expect we’ll have some really exciting things to talk about,” Dr. Tromble said.