The Social Science Research Council (SSRC) is an independent, nonpartisan institution committed to mobilizing knowledge for the public good. For close to a century, the SSRC has served as a platform for cultivating new research paradigms and connecting scholars across disciplines and borders. This field-building and network-building tradition lies at the heart of the Social Data Initiative, a critically important endeavor to examine social media’s impact on society, explore questions about the responsible use of social network data, and generate insights to inform solutions. The initiative is truly an unparalleled partnership between philanthropy, industry, and the global research community.

With many complex social, cultural, economic, and political processes now online, we launched the Social Data Initiative with the commitment to found the new academic norms necessary for ethical and transparent social science on the digital vanguard.

We’re delighted to share that, since April, we have launched the administrative infrastructure and peer-review processes necessary for the ethical study of social media data. These processes are at once uniquely adapted for the subject matter and reflect our ten decades of expertise overseeing international grant programs, convening peer review, and facilitating rigorous research.

In this update, we will elaborate on this infrastructure and the ways it meets the complexities of studying social media. We’ll also outline what we’ve seen of the process so far during our two completed review panels. Finally, we will share what researchers and the public can expect from the project moving forward.

In July, with our partner, Social Science One, we announced our first request for proposals (RFP) for the Social Media and Democracy Research Grants competition, as the first project of the Social Data Initiative. The RFP offers access to a dataset of the URLs publicly shared on Facebook that can offer insight into social media’s impact on democratic norms and institutions. The project’s structure meets a number of major challenges presented by studying social media.

Raising the bar on ethics

The growing consensus among digital researchers and ethical experts is that existing safeguards based on institutional review boards (IRBs) and the Common Rule standard are not alone sufficient to ensure ethical research and subject privacy in digital social science. Above all else, creating new processes for secure, ethical research that far exceeded existing standards was this project’s highest priority.

We joined with PERVADE, a working group convened by the National Science Foundation, to set a new standard for twenty-first-century academic ethics. The resulting safeguards take the form of an unprecedented additional ethical review stage in the peer review process. The stage considers the risks posed by a proposal’s unique research question, methodology, and use of available data. The process also examines potential unintended impacts and outcomes resulting from the publication of research findings; a particularly important consideration is protecting historically marginalized populations from the misuse of academic research.

All proposals still require approval from a university institutional review board or equivalent. To both keep this standard of ethics and ensure international project participation, the SSRC offered guidance and funding to assist applicants from universities without institutional review boards in gaining IRB approval. Applicants from across the globe took advantage of this offer.

Review at the speed of the subject matter

The rapid global rise of election-focused disinformation demanded quick academic attention to produce actionable research and furnish an international discourse. While proposals in every SSRC project are subject to rigorous review of their academic merits, methodological thoroughness, and researcher qualifications, a standard four-to-six-month turnaround would not meet the needs of studying social media.

We designed the review cycle of the Social Media and Democracy Research Grants competition around a rapid and flexible schedule. We instituted rolling deadlines and multiple cohorts in succession. We currently average a two-month review turnaround, with the opportunity to increase and decrease the frequency as topical urgency and submission load require.

Supporting the highest standard of academic independence

From the beginning, we announced that the Social Data Initiative would accept no money or operational participation from Facebook beyond facilitating data access. All aspects of proposal review, project funding, and administrative infrastructure needed to be entirely independent.

For this reason, we announced this initiative in April with the support of seven ideologically diverse, not-for-profit funding organizations. Since the launch, we have formalized the funder consortium through a robust memorandum of understanding that outlines the parameters of the project and describes the roles and responsibilities of all parties.

At the end of 2018, we added an eighth organization to the consortium, the UK-based Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), further diversifying the project’s funding base. Funds from CIFF are earmarked to support scholarship “where the United States is not the area of focus of research.”

We have begun to put these funds to work, to build the necessary administrative infrastructure to support researchers. We have completed the legal and reporting infrastructure necessary for grant management and stand ready to provide grants to approved researchers through their institutions. The Council has also issued over a dozen contracts, including to the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard, Social Science One, and Social Science One commissioners, for the development of the project’s broader research agenda.

Peer-review processes completed

In addition to building the important review infrastructure, we have also successfully begun to accept and review applications. Since opening the application portal in July, we have received nearly 100 proposals representing over 150 researchers from every continent.

The project’s two completed peer-review panels called together academics and experts from across North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa to consider the merits, methods, and researcher qualifications described in the submitted proposals.

We will include additional information about the demographics of applicants and eventual awardees in future updates. In keeping with standard review practices, peer reviewers are kept anonymous for a year following their participation in a review panel.

Next steps

• As our partners resolve technical issues related to data access, we are quickly approaching a public announcement of accepted applicants, anticipating this in the coming weeks.

• Beginning with the present update, we will begin to issue monthly project updates here on Items, the SSRC blog.

• We will convene our third review panel next month.

The creation of new scholarly paradigms and new collaborations requires creativity and patience. The Social Data Initiative began as and continues to be an important and challenging project.

This project has been made possible through the generosity of our funders: The Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, the Democracy Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, the Omidyar Network, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.