Facebook Struggles Balancing Misinformation Research With User Privacy

With the 2020 U.S. presidential election right around the corner, many lawmakers and advocates have expressed concern that Facebook will once again be used to spread misinformation and fake news. However, to prevent these attacks, Facebook needs to conduct thorough research — and that involves scraping users’ data in a way that could jeopardize privacy.

According to Facebook, even if it provided anonymized data to researchers about what users share, that info could still be used to identify them. That has put Facebook in a legal and ethical bind when it comes to providing data to researchers.

“Legally and in every other way it was impossible for them to do what they promised to do,” Harvard professor Gary King told Fast Company. “Facebook, of course, always has final authority about what they do with their resources, including their data.”

That’s why Facebook took steps this spring to help protect users by implementing “differential privacy.” Using this technique, Facebook adds “noise” to its data sets to cloak the identity of users while maintaining the general scope and shape of trends. However, this had the unfortunate side effect of making data less useful to researchers.

“From a privacy point of view, it protects privacy,” King said. “But from a researcher’s point of view, it’s biased.”

Like with many of Facebook’s problems, there’s no obvious solution here. Because of the company’s size and need to protect users, it will probably never find an acceptable compromise when it comes to data sharing.

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