Facebook is forming a research commission to study how social media impacts elections

The entrance to Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. (Facebook Photo)

Facebook is launching an academic initiative to research the impact of social media on democracy as part of the company’s multi-pronged effort to regain the public’s trust in the wake of political scandal.

Facebook, and a consortium of foundations that are funding the project, will invite scholars to sit on a commission and study the relationship between online social networks and the political process. The commission will establish the research agenda and publish reports without Facebook’s review or authorization, the company said Monday.

“The commission will have the authority to regularly report on its activities and Facebook’s,” said Facebook policy and research executives in an announcement. “This will include the decision-making criteria guiding both the research agenda and scholar selection. And the research coming from this initiative will be public, and Facebook will not approve it before it’s published.”

Areas of study could include misinformation campaigns, election security, and polarizing content — issues that have plagued Facebook since the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Facebook will share “privacy-protected datasets” with the commission for research purposes.

The initiative is Facebook’s attempt to get out ahead of consequential elections on the horizon.

“Our goals are to understand Facebook’s impact on upcoming elections — like Brazil, India, Mexico and the U.S. midterms — and to inform our future product and policy decisions,” Facebook says.

The initiative is the latest in a series of changes Facebook is making in response to public outcry over the role the platform played in Russian election interference and the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which allowed a political consultancy firm to access data from up to 87 million Facebook users. Last week, Facebook introduced stricter policies for advertisers promoting hot-button issues and updated rules for third-party apps that rely on Facebook user data.