How Will Facebook Conduct its Data Mining on Women?

An important new question has arisen about the “superpowers” of Facebook and how they will use these powers for good.

Facebook attended this year’s U.N. General Assembly and discussed its five-year commitment “to use data to help partners advance progress on the Sustainable Development Goals — and it has narrowed in on gender data as the place to start,” according to an article on Devex by Catherine Cheney entitled, Inside Facebook’s emerging gender data efforts.

“We mapped projects related to SDGs in the company, then got a sense for which SDGs are we currently working hard on, which are we missing out on, then turned to the future,” said Anna Lerner Nesbitt, program manager of global impact for data and artificial intelligence at Facebook. At a convening hosted by Data2X, Nesbitt asked, “Based on what we’re doing now and where the world needs to be in 2030, where are our unique superpowers?”

What will this data mining look like, and how will it impact privacy, particularly around safety- and reputation- sensitive issues like domestic violence, pay rates (will complaining about being underpaid on Facebook now count as some form of gender data?), and physical and mental health?

The article goes on to open up a few questions about how Facebook will be parsing its gender data. Joe Westby, researcher for Amnesty International, raised concerns about Facebook’s involvement this way: “When we’re looking at disaggregating data along gender lines, you have to be cognizant of ways data could be misused.”

Hopefully there will be an intensive inventorying of all the issues Facebook needs to address as it wields its mighty influence on gender data.

First and foremost, it is essential to understand how this data mining will be funded within Facebook. Remember: Where you get your funding from often largely determines what your research ends up looking like.

Second, will this research at Facebook be women-led? We know that Facebook is a company that primarily employs men.

Facebook Employees, aggregated by gender. Light blue is men. Dark blue is women. (Image credit: Statista)

The progress for improving this one gender data point for Facebook internally has been significant, increasing their women in the workforce by over 5% in 5 years. However, the fact that there are still nearly two men for every woman in the company suggests that there is a great deal of work that Facebook needs to be doing internally on their own gender data. Must we not consider Facebook’s authority problems on gender internally as a hindrance to their ability to be the best global partners in data mining for gender equality?

A third concern arises from the words of Data2X fellow Bapu Vaitla who was interviewed for the Devex article, and whose research focuses on gender data. Vaitla met with Facebook about their interest in performing a social service by crunching data on women. Vaitla said Facebook is planning to launch a “data-to-policy experiment” where they will take their new learnings about women and girls and then implement policies that would not have been possible without the newly discovered data insights.

So Facebook is going to conduct policy experiments on its users based on its gender data analysis? As a therapist who has seen many socially inappropriate things go down on social media over the past two decades, I can imagine endless ways in which this could go wrong. For example, how will data about sex workers be aggregated in Facebook’s gender data collection, as a social hindrance or as a form of legitimate commerce in the business sector? Another example: will Facebook be tracking statistics like the divorce gap — the loss in income and net worth that a majority of women experience after divorce — and if so, what could they possibly do to address it?

Will all of our behaviors that are enacted or discussed on Facebook now be fodder for policy initiatives? What about women who get into verbal disputes with partners on Facebook? Will Facebook be analyzing that data and offering some therapeutic interventions?

We should all be more than a little leery about Facebook taking a major role in crunching user data to bring about progress on the SDG’s. Perhaps the company should focus first and foremost on righting the gender imbalance of its own worker population. They also need to do much more to protect user privacy. With the Cambridge Analytica Data breaches that may have skewed the 2016 elections and produced a win for one of the worst presidents in U. S. history, we know how badly things can go wrong when Facebook gets involved.

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Kiersten Marek

Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work in Cranston, Rhode Island, and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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