Facebook is making it easier for researchers to study fringe groups

·Senior Editor
·2 min read

Facebook is making it easier for researchers to study its platform, including fringe groups and other “non-mainstream” movements, with a new Researcher API. The API, which will be available later this year, will make it easier for academics to study content shared in public groups and pages. 

It comes more than three years after Facebook closed off much of its platform following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which made it harder for outsiders to study the social network, a trend the company says it now wants to reverse.

The new API will allow “qualifying researchers” to study public-facing pages, groups and events in the United States, including the text of specific posts from users (Facebook says it will hide usernames and @-mentions in order to protect user privacy.) Researchers will also get access to follower metrics and engagement statistics for groups, events and pages.

“It was specifically designed for researchers,” said Chaya Nayak, Facebook’s head of Open Research and Transparency. “Compared to other research data offerings like CrowdTangle, the Researcher API will include US public page, events, and group data on Facebook, regardless of follower count. This is important because it will enable the study of fringe and non-mainstream movements as they evolve, rather than only once they become prominent on the platform.”

Facebook’s handling of fringe groups was a significant issue over the last year. The company has been widely criticized for failing to prevent QAnon, once considered a fringe movement, until after it had moved into the mainstream. And following the election, Facebook failed to recognize the dangers posed by the “Stop the Steal” movement, which helped fuel the violence on January 6th.

Allowing researchers who specialize in misinformation or extremism to study smaller groups could help Facebook be better prepared for the next dangerous fringe group that tries to organize on its platform. Though the Researcher API will only cover the US to start, Nayak said the company plans to eventually extend it to “other geographies.” She also said that in the future, Facebook would use research insights to consider “changes to our product.”

Facebook’s relationship with the researchers who want to study the platform has at times been strained in recent years. Some academics have said the company makes it too difficult to access the limited data it does provide. And the social network was widely criticized for trying to prevent researchers at New York University from studying the company’s political ad targeting system last year.

Notably, it appears the new Researcher API doesn’t provide additional access to ads or targeting information. Instead, it’s mainly geared toward posts that are already public. But, if the company does make the API widely available to researchers, it could still be incredibly useful to those who study misinformation, extremism or other issues affecting Facebook.

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