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Facebook announces election-based independent research initiative as part of its continuing hearts and minds campaign

Today, Facebook announced it had initiated a new independent research project seeking to determine social media’s impact on elections. The project is funded by a seven different foundations — including the Democracy Fund, the Charles Koch Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Facebook says it does not have the right to review or approve the research findings prior to publication.

“We’re excited about this initiative for two important reasons,” writes Facebook’s VP of communications and policy, Elliot Schrage, and its director of research, David Ginsberg in a post on Facebook’s news blog.

According to Schrage and Ginsberg, the two reasons they’re so excited are that the research will serve as a new model for partnerships between industry and academia and that they’ve learned during the last two years how Facebook’s platform can be “… misused to manipulate and deceive.”

Necessary research or more crisis control?

While the nature of this latest research initiative pulls all the right altruistic strings, it’s difficult not to see it as another crisis-control maneuver as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg prepares to testify in front of Congress this week.

In fact, since confirming it had suspended Cambridge Analytica for exploiting user data less than a month ago on March 16, Facebook has released a flurry of announcements around the steps it is taking to improve the user experience and protect user data.

During the last 21 days, Facebook has published a total of 23 announcements on its news site. Eighteen of those announcements have centered on the following topics: updating its News Feed algorithm; actions it is taking to fight fake news and platform abuse; ad transparency; and protecting user privacy. (This time last year, Facebook’s news site had less than half the number of entries for the same time period.)

All the ways Facebook is putting users ‘first’

Yesterday, a day before announcing its research initiative, Facebook said it was updating its News Feed algorithm once again, now prioritizing posts between two people versus a post between a person and a Page.

“Now we’ll consider whether a potential interaction is between two people or between a person and a page, which are accounts run by businesses, organizations or public figures. Person to person will be more valuable than person to page,” says Mark Hull, Facebook’s director of product management,  in a video posted to Facebook’s news site.

This update differs slightly from a January announcement in which Facebook said it would prioritize posts that “spark” meaningful interactions between people but didn’t say whether the posts were necessarily between two people or a person and a Page. Today’s update appears to distinguish between the two — further deprioritizing Page posts.

Between March 28 and April 4, the site made four announcements speaking specifically to its privacy tools.

In addition to speaking ad nauseam about how it is protecting user privacy, tweaking its News Feed and implementing more ad transparency around political ads, Facebook also made it easier for users to remove apps in bulk last week. These are all steps geared toward its effort to put users first, a sentiment the company’s CEO hopes to convince Congress is Facebook’s first priority.

What Zuckerberg will tell Congress

Zuckerberg will be testifying to Congress on two different days this week, April 10 and April 11. On April 10, he will appear before the US Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees for a joint hearing. On April 11, he is scheduled to testify before the Committee on Energy and Commerce.

According to a written testimony of Zuckerberg’s April 11 appearance, the CEO will state, “I want to be clear about what our priority is: protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits.” (A Facebook representative has confirmed the written testimony dated April 11, 2018, will serve for both of the CEO’s appearances before Congress this week.)

The seven-page document outlines how Cambridge Analytica was able to exploit user data and lists a number of actions Facebook has taken — most of which have been already been shared by the company in its numerous announcements since the Cambridge Analytica news broke.

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