Facebook's Election Research Group Announced 211 Days Ahead of Midterms

"Looking back, it's clear we were too slow identifying election interference in 2016."


Ahead of Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress this week, he announced on Monday morning the formation of a Facebook independent election research commission to study the effects of social media on elections and democracy. The teeth of the commission is one of contrition: Zuckerberg says it will “hold us accountable for making sure we protect the integrity of these elections on Facebook.”

Crucially, “Facebook will not have any right to review or approve their research findings prior to publication,” notes a corporate blog post published in tandem with Zuckerberg’s own post about the matter. “The last two years have taught us that the same Facebook tools that help politicians connect with their constituents — and different communities debate the issues they care about — can also be misused to manipulate and deceive,” admits the blog post. The commission will be comprised of “respected academic experts to form a commission which will then develop a research agenda about the impact of social media on society — starting with elections. The focus will be entirely forward looking,” the company announced.

Paying for the commission is a diverse set of backers, from GOP donors like libertarian Charles Koch, to eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who famously donated $100,000 to an anti-Trump Super PAC two years ago this month. Here’s the full list of funders: The John and Laura Arnold Foundation, Democracy Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, the Omidyar Network, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Politically, this commission may not be enough to satisfy representatives in front of whom Zuckerberg will testify on Tuesday and Wednesday. “Looking back, it’s clear we were too slow identifying election interference in 2016, and we need to do better in future elections,” Zuckerberg writes in a post published Monday. “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.”

The commission is one of two ways Facebook is going to track political activity on its site. The other, announced on Friday, is a new policy around “issue ads.” Anyone on who wants to buy a “issue ad” on Facebook or Instagram will have to become an “authorized advertiser,” which is done via a confirmed identify and location. An “issue ad” is subjective, and Facebook is working with outside experts to determine a list of “key issues.” The ads will have a “political ad” disclaimer in the top-left corner.

We’re now 211 days out from the November 6, 2018 midterm elections. In an interview on CNN on March 21, Zuckerberg intimated that the Russian active measures effort is gearing up, telling Laurie Segall: “And I’m sure that there’s V2, version two of whatever the Russian effort was in 2016. I’m sure they’re working on that, and there are going to be some new tactics that we need to make sure that we observe and get in front of”

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