Researchers are imploring Congress to force social media companies to share data showing the platforms’ effect on users, especially children.
Lawmakers in both parties have expressed concern over whether social media harms mental health among youth. They’re weighing whether and how to require greater transparency from companies without jeopardizing user privacy.
“Researchers are working with one hand tied behind their back,” Jonathan Haidt, a professor at New York University, said Wednesday at a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law hearing. “Almost all the data is there but we can’t get to it. We’re flying blind.”
While social media companies “know exactly what the kids are consuming,” researchers have to do secondary studies “and try to look at shadows,” Haidt said.
The subcommittee is considering legislation that would require large social media platforms such Twitter Inc. and Meta Platform Inc.‘s Facebook to disclose information such as advertising practices, algorithms, and widely viewed content, to independent researchers and the public. The panel’s chairman, Chris Coons (D-Del.) is sponsoring the measure.
In response to the hearing, a Meta spokesperson pointed an April blog post in which the company’s head of research says Meta is investing in transparency through the Facebook and Instagram Election Study — a collaboration between internal researchers and external academics to understand the impact of the company on the 2020 election.
Twitter didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the hearing. The company has a Twitter Transparency Center that includes details on information requests, Twitter rules enforcement, and platform manipulation.
Stanford Law professor Nathaniel Persily said access to data would help settle conflicting information coming from companies. Researchers need more data about the prevalence of hate speech, disinformation, and child endangerment online, he said.
“There is a fundamental disagreement between conventional wisdom and what the platforms say is happening,” he told the panel.
Coons said that in an effort to protect users, his legislation encompasses the disclosure of data that is less risky to personal privacy.
Brandon Silverman, former CEO and co-founder of CrowdTangle, said a lot of content poses “very minimal” risk to privacy. CrowdTangle is a social media analytics tool Facebook acquired in 2016.
Having access to data on content coming from a public figure — such as a former president — or a public entity such a large media company would be “enormously helpful” and provide a real-time window into entities that engage in large-scale communication, Silverman said.
American Enterprise Institute Fellow Jim Harper agreed there is room to modify the terms of service for accounts that are public, so their behavior shouldn’t be treated as private.
“There are lots of ways to slice and dice what information is made available to researchers,” Harper said. “Certainly there are ways to limit the privacy concerns.”
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