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Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez/​The Associated Press

The Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) has announced that it will contribute to the funding of a new research initiative designed to examine the impact that Facebook has on elections and democracy. With the announcement, LJAF joins a consortium of prominent philanthropic foundations who have pledged to partner with the social media giant by financially supporting the research effort.

Facebook has agreed to grant a team of independent researchers unprecedented access to privacy-protected data, allowing them to conduct a number of comprehensive studies on the impact that the company has on elections held within the United States and beyond.

Although few can argue that social media platforms have dramatically changed the way Americans consume and share information, there is less clarity surrounding the precise nature of that change. One key question that remains unanswered is whether or not social media improves or harms Americans’ ability to make informed decisions on a host of issues.

Social media’s arrival in the political universe has brought with it both promise and uncertainty,” said Laura Arnold, co-chair of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. We believe that this phenomena needs study. We don’t know where the data will take us but we do know that the examination is of vital importance.”

Facebook also recognizes the need for research in this area, as they have agreed to work with the consortium in identifying a diverse, independent committee of scholars tasked with understanding Facebook’s impact on upcoming elections — including in Mexico, Brazil, and the United States.” Committee members will craft a research agenda designed to assess Facebook’s effectiveness at reducing the risks and maximizing the benefits associated with their various services. This will include an examination of the company’s ability to fight the spread of misinformation and foreign interference. In order to ensure independence, researchers will publish their findings without prior review or approval from Facebook.

Early efforts to coordinate the project are being led by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

The Hewlett Foundation’s efforts have been focused on improving the performance of democratic institutions, especially Congress. Meanwhile, a ceaseless stream of misinformation is eroding trust in those institutions and eating away at the very idea of our shared political community,” said Hewlett Foundation President Larry Kramer. Progress in repairing institutions will not matter if citizens are misinformed about what has been done, misled about why, and deceived about whether democracy can work at all.”

Other foundations pledging to support the initiative through funding, include: the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, Democracy Fund, the Omidyar Network, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Facebook is already in the process of building a dedicated team to work with the committee members and other academic researchers. The group is taking many measures to ensure researchers protect data privacy. It will soon begin developing privacy-preserving datasets, which will be accessed exclusively on Facebook’s secure servers; it will ensure that only aggregated, anonymized results are published; and it will develop a process for other interested researchers to apply for access to the data for the purposes of replication.