Senate bill would facilitate social platforms sharing data with outside researchers

A bill announced yesterday would open social media company data to scrutiny by outside researchers. Sponsored by Senators Klobuchar (D-MN), Coons (D-DE)and Portman (R-OH), it proposes to use the National Science Foundation as the intermediary between sensitive platform information and requests from interested parties. 

Senate aides, speaking under condition of anonymity to the Wall Street Journal, claim the bill is a direct response to recent disclosures about negative externalities associated with Instagram. Documents shared with the Journal in September indicated Meta (then known as Facebook) had conducted internal studies which found use of the Instagram app was damaging to mental health and body image for some users, especially teen girls.  

The bill also follows a Senate subcommittee on child safety hearing this Wednesday where lawmakers grilled Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri over these same issues. Many came armed with their own experiences creating dummy accounts meant to mimic teenagers, and the disturbing content the platform pushed these accounts towards, including self-harm and “anorexia coaches.”

While the proposed bill would apply broadly to large social media companies, Meta has a particularly bad track record regarding disclosure for academic purposes. It managed to taint a raft of ongoing studies by providing incomplete data sets in September. A month earlier it actively deplatformed New York University researchers who were studying misinformation and political ads on Facebook. (Their findings indicated that misinformation flourishes there.)

It’s too early to know exactly what shape this bill will take should it move forward. But as Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) told Mosseri earlier this week, “the days of self-policing are over.”

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