There has never been a time when so much data existed about human behavior. What many of us buy, sell, like, dislike, read, and tell our friends is recorded on the internet thanks to sites like Facebook. To social scientists, the company is sitting on a gold mine.
Some of that information is public, but much is not, and the company’s reach is so vast most people don’t know how far it extends. Several research projects that use Facebook data have ended as high-profile privacy-breach scandals in part because subjects didn’t know they were being studied. In the most recent and possibly the largest data breach at the company, an academic harvested information about millions of Facebook users and shared it with Cambridge Analytica, a firm that advised the Trump campaign.
One might think that in the wake of that scandal, Facebook would lock academics out. That’s what Gary King, a political scientist at Harvard University who has pitched Facebook about opening up its data for research, expected. He met with Facebook officials right before the Cambridge Analytica news broke and, to his surprise, he got a call a few days later. They wanted him to study the company’s impact on elections.