US Politics

Facebook will pay users to stay off their platform in a new study to track online political behaviour

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Source: AAP

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been heavily criticised over concerns the platform has contributed to the spread of misinformation and political polarisation. The social media giant is looking to address their critics. Facebook is planning a new study to examine its role in political influence.

Facebook is planning to pay users to stay off the social platform during the 2020 US presidential elections -- it's an effort to study its influence on political campaigns.

The company announced on Monday a research partnership with external academics, with a purpose, Facebook says, to "better understand the impact of Facebook and Instagram" on political "attitudes and behaviours" for the upcoming US elections.

“It will examine the impact of how people interact with our products, including content shared in News Feed and across Instagram, and the role of features like content ranking systems,” Facebook said in a public statement on Monday.

It's a u-turn from the company's approach in the aftermath of the 2016 US election. Antonio Garcia Martinez, a former Facebook sales department employee, has been vocal about Facebook's missteps in 2016.

“It’s crazy that Zuckerberg says there’s no way Facebook can influence the election when there’s a whole sales force in Washington DC that does nothing but convince advertisers that they can,” Martinez told The Guardian in 2016.

"We used to joke that we could sell the whole election to the highest bidder."

Facebook's critics extend beyond past employees. Over the last few years, Mark Zuckerberg has been questioned by the US Congress multiple times about the power the platform has to influence politics.

Facebook has also been accused of not acting quickly enough to understand growing misinformation on the platform. It's something they've addressed in the lead up to their study.

"The US elections in 2016 exposed the risk of social media being abused to interfere in elections, and misinformation and political polarization clearly play out on social media platforms too," Facebook's public statement reads.

So how will this work?

The study will see Facebook and Instagram pay users between $USD10 to $USD20 per week to have a staycation from their platforms. The Washington Post's Elizabeth Dwoskin reported on Twitter the pay scale, and later received a reply from Facebook's communication director Liz Bourgeois.

The participant numbers Facebook is anticipating to be a part of the study are between 200,000 and 400,000 users. The academics involved in the study include Professor Talia Stroud from the University of Texas, and Professor Joshua A. Tucker from New York University, as well as an additional 15 researchers they will select to aid the project.

Facebook says there will be three core principles they will be following: independence, transparency, and consent. 

They say all academics working on the project will not answer to Facebook, and come from external organisations. Researchers will publish their findings in open-source academic journals, and users will be able to opt-in, or out of participation - hence the ‘consent’. 

What do experts think about the study?

Axel Bruns is a professor in the Digital Research Center at the Queensland University of Technology.

He believes this study is a step in the right direction in terms of seeing social platforms like Facebook take responsibility for the power they have to influence the public.

"Facebook kind of has largely, I think, avoided, really engaging with this of the impact it has on society in the past," Prof Bruns told The Feed.

"Facebook is starting to kind of get the message that it needs to take some responsibility on the impact it has on society."

Prof Bruns is impressed by the group of researchers brought onto the project. He says there's a good mix of academics from computational scientists, researchers who work in social media data, media communications experts, and political scientists.

"They've brought together and some very well known researchers in this space," he said.

The principle of consent, as outlined by Facebook’s public statement, is something that interests Prof Bruns. He says it is a sign they have learned from previous research attempts where users were unaware of the changes happening on the platform. 

The announcement that Facebook will be paying users to stay off their platforms has attracted a lot of attention. However, Prof Bruns says commentators are losing sight of the bigger story behind the move. 

“This idea of paying people for not using Facebook and Instagram will be essentially kind of a control group,” he said.

Prof Bruns says Facebook will examine the differences between a group of people remaining on Facebook and Instagram, and the group who has left the platforms. He thinks the project is ambitious and will be looking at a number of parameters: Are you online? How often are you online? What are you doing while you’re online?

“How would your experience differ if we give you fewer or more ads or fewer or more election-related newsfeed items and so on,” he said.

Prof Bruns thinks the study could look at the before and after effects of how political attitudes, behaviours, and voting intentions change in the course of the research. 

Although Prof Bruns is impressed by the steps taken by Facebook, he says there needs to be more signs to show this isn’t “purely a kind of fig leaf, one-off exercise.”

“But if this is the sort of work that will come out of Facebook more often,” he said, “then that certainly would be a positive sign.”