New Approaches to Platform Data Research

cover image for white paper "New Approaches to Platform Data Research"

In March, we published iDPI’s first piece of research, New Approaches to Platform Data Research. This was written by Elizabeth Hansen-Shapiro, Michael Sugarman, Fernando Bermejo, and Ethan Zuckerman. Download the full report here.

The white paper was originally commissioned by the NetGain partnership as a post-mortem on the Social Science One initiative. Ultimately, the research grew to comprehensively catalog the issues social science researchers face when trying to access social media platform data and recommending potential solutions for expanding access to such data and, in turn, audibility and accountability of such platforms.


Social media platforms — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit and others — have taken center stage in contemporary debates about the health of civic participation and democracy as a whole. As scholars, journalists and activists struggle to understand a wave of right-wing populism and the popularity of conspiracy theories and cultural conflicts over the coronavirus pandemic, social media has become a popular target of scrutiny as an influential factor in the contemporary civic environment.

While it is easy to hypothesize about the influence of social media on democratic participation and discourse, it is harder to rigorously study the impacts of social media. Ethnographic methods have provided critical insights into communities like far-right extremist groups, but can leave us without a clear sense for how rare or common these views are. Quantitative research promises a broader picture, but collecting data from social media platforms is difficult, expensive and often legally fraught. Understandably, the social change community has advocated for increased access to data from social media platforms, supporting collaborations like Social Science One’s efforts to open Facebook data and exploring regulatory measures that could require platforms to share more data with researchers.

New Approaches to Platform Data Research, a report commissioned by the NetGain Partnership, explores the challenges and potentials of a wide range of approaches to studying social media platforms, ranging from cooperative to adversarial strategies. The report represents the results of 32 interviews, and includes an overview of the different ways researchers are trying to understand social media data, the obstacles to accessing that data, and a set of recommendations for policymakers and philanthropic funders to increase access to that data.

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