Politics

Facebook’s new research project will show how it influenced the 2020 election — after it's over

To study its impact on the 2020 election, Facebook will ask some people to stop using Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg standing in front of his own face on a screen

Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg once said argued it was a "pretty crazy idea" to think Facebook could influence an election

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Facebook is teaming up with academics across the country to determine once and for all whether Facebook is in fact influencing the 2020 election. The only catch: They won't know the answer until well after it's over.

The new research project, which Facebook announced Monday, will study how the 2020 election is playing out on the world's largest social network, and how the platform affects things like political polarization, voter participation, trust in democracy and the spread of misinformation. A 17-person research team, which includes leading academics in the fields of media and politics, will work with some two dozen Facebook staffers to design the experiments.

Once users opt in to be part of the study, the research team will deidentify their data, split them into groups and begin tinkering with their News Feeds, switch up their ad experiences and, in some cases, even ask them to stop using Facebook temporarily, all while surveying participants to see how their experiences and viewpoints evolve and stack up against control groups. The findings, which Facebook will have no veto power over, will be published for free to the public beginning next summer.

In some ways, the undertaking demonstrates how far Facebook has come since 2016, when it eagerly courted political clients with the promise of influence, then, following President Trump's victory, just as eagerly denied that it had any influence at all. Mark Zuckerberg himself famously called it a "pretty crazy idea." But the fact that this sort of research is only now getting underway also demonstrates just how little we actually know four years later. So much of what regulators and the public have come to believe about how social media affects elections boils down to anecdotes and assumption, not data. This research could change that.

"We're in these really uncharted waters where you have two or three enormous companies that control the vast majority of the data we need to advance science," said Joshua Tucker, a professor of politics at New York University, who is leading the outside research team along with Talia Stroud, a professor of communications at the University of Texas at Austin. "This has been just an amazing opportunity to work with a platform, and so we have to try that."

Facebook has a spotty record when it comes to social science research, particularly as it pertains to elections. In 2010, the company performed a randomized controlled trial on 61 million users to see whether serving different iterations of its "I Voted" sticker to different groups of users would impact voter turnout. (It did, sparking outrage.) And of course there was the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where a Cambridge University professor used a Facebook app to scrape data from tens of millions of Facebook users, which he then sold to the now defunct and disgraced data analytics firm that powered the Trump campaign.

This time around, Facebook is being significantly more cautious. Facebook employees will be the only ones with access to the raw data, for one thing, and users will have to explicitly opt-in to participate. That said, Stroud, Tucker and the 15 other researchers they've selected will have maximum input on the research questions and the experiment design. They will preregister their study plans so anyone interested can see exactly what the researchers are setting out to find before they even begin and can compare those goals to whatever they ultimately deliver. Facebook won't have any say over what the researchers do or don't publish, and the researchers won't be paid by Facebook, either.

"The academic team really thought about what the key questions might be, and then in collaboration with Facebook, we've been thinking through what the designs would be, with us bringing the expertise as far as methodology and the statistical techniques involved, and the Facebook team really bring a lot of expertise about what the platform is able to do," Stroud said.

The researchers plan to recruit about 200,000 to 400,000 people across the U.S. to participate. Those who opt in might see fewer political ads or fewer news stories about certain topics in their News Feeds. They might be asked to download apps that monitor their online behavior, though Facebook said researchers won't have access to private messages. They might even be asked to stop using Facebook altogether. Some who will act as a control group won't see any changes at all.

Both the researchers and the Facebook executives are confident the experiment group is so small that these tweaks won't have a meaningful outcome on the election. Of course, that might not stop political operatives from claiming that it will; some, like President Trump's digital director, Gary Coby, have already speculated without evidence that Facebook will intentionally register more Democrats than Republicans as part of its voter registration push.

But the potential insights may be well worth the reputational risks. Researchers and regulators have been pushing Facebook and other tech companies to be more transparent for years. In 2018, Facebook helped launch an organization called Social Science One, through which it has been working to open up data to third-party researchers. In February, as part of that work, Facebook released 38 million URLs that were shared on Facebook between 2017 and 2019. That tranche of data was the result of a painstaking process that took years to come to fruition, as Facebook and the researchers sparred over the best way to share data without sacrificing user privacy.

With this design, the researchers are taking a less intensive route, in order to ensure the research could actually get underway before November. "It's not the ideal system, but it is going to be unprecedented in the degree of research we will be able to accomplish," said Nate Persily, a professor at Stanford University School of Law and one of the co-chairs of Social Science One. "If we didn't do something related to the 2020 election, then that would have been a problem. This is the thing we can do."

Persily as well as Tucker and Stroud, who co-chair committees within Social Science One, hope that if this project is successful, it can serve as a model for other social media giants like YouTube and Twitter to open up their black boxes, too.

Of course, whatever the researchers do find about Facebook's impact on the election, it won't come in time for Facebook to act on it before November. But Facebook's head of research and transparency, Chaya Nayak, said such a huge undertaking wouldn't have been possible two years ago, because the company needed time to figure out how to make it work. "There's going to be other elections, and it's really important for us, as a company, to understand the impact of our platform on both the election coming up as well as elections moving forward," she said. "It's never too late."

Image: Yuanxin

Yuanxin Technology doesn't hide its ambition. In the first line of its prospectus, the company says its mission is to be the "first choice for patients' healthcare and medication needs in China." But the road to winning the crowded China health tech race is a long one for this Tencent- and Sequoia-backed startup, even with a recent valuation of $4 billion, according to Chinese publication Lieyunwang. Here's everything you need to know about Yuanxin Technology's forthcoming IPO on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

What does Yuanxin do?

There are many ways startups can crack open the health care market in China, and Yuanxin has focused on one: prescription drugs. According to its prospectus, sales of prescription drugs outside hospitals account for only 23% of the total healthcare market in China, whereas that number is 70.2% in the United States.

Yuanxin started with physical stores. Since 2015, it has opened 217 pharmacies immediately outside Chinese hospitals. "A pharmacy has to be on the main road where a patient exits the hospital. It needs to be highly accessible," Yuanxin founder He Tao told Chinese media in August. Then, patients are encouraged to refill their prescriptions on Yuanxin's online platforms and to follow up with telehealth services instead of returning to a hospital.

From there, Yuanxin has built a large product portfolio that offers online doctor visits, pharmacies and private insurance plans. It also works with enterprise clients, designing office automation and prescription management systems for hospitals and selling digital ads for big pharma.

Yuanxin's Financials

Yuanxin's annual revenues have been steadily growing from $127 million in 2018 to $365 million in 2019 and $561 million in 2020. In each of those three years, over 97% of revenue came from "out-of-hospital comprehensive patient services," which include the company's physical pharmacies and telehealth services. More specifically, approximately 83% of its retail sales derived from prescription drugs.

But the company hasn't made a profit. Yuanxin's annual losses grew from $17 million in 2018 to $26 million in 2019 and $48 million in 2020. The losses are moderate considering the ever-growing revenues, but cast doubt on whether the company can become profitable any time soon. Apart from the cost of drug supplies, the biggest spend is marketing and sales.

What's next for Yuanxin

There are still abundant opportunities in the prescription drug market. In 2020, China's National Medical Products Administration started to explore lifting the ban on selling prescription drugs online. Although it's unclear when the change will take place, it looks like more purely-online platforms will be able to write prescriptions in the future. With its established market presence, Yuanxin is likely one of the players that can benefit greatly from such a policy change.

The enterprise and health insurance businesses of Yuanxin are still fairly small (accounting for less than 3% of annual revenue), but this is where the company sees an opportunity for future growth. Yuanxin is particularly hoping to power its growth with data and artificial intelligence. It boasts a database of 14 million prescriptions accumulated over years, and the company says the data can be used in many ways: designing private insurance plans, training doctors and offering chronic disease management services. The company says it currently employs 509 people on its R&D team, including 437 software engineers and 22 data engineers and scientists.

What Could Go Wrong?

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped sell the story of digital health care, but Yuanxin isn't the only company benefiting from this opportunity. 2020 has seen a slew of Chinese health tech companies rise. They either completed their IPO process before Yuanxin (like JD, Alibaba and Ping An's healthcare subsidiaries) or are close to it (WeDoctor and DXY). In this crowded sector, Yuanxin faces competition from both companies with Big Tech parent companies behind them and startups that have their own specialized advantages.

Like each of its competitors, Yuanxin needs to be careful with how it processes patient data — some of the most sensitive personal data online. Recent Chinese legislation around personal data has made it clear that it will be increasingly difficult to monetize user data. In the prospectus, Yuanxin elaborately explained how it anonymizes data and prevents data from being leaked or hacked, but it also admitted that it cannot foresee what future policies will be introduced.

Who Gets Rich

  • Yuanxin's founder and CEO He Tao and SVP He Weizhuang own 29.82% of the company's shares through a jointly controlled company. (It's unclear whether He Tao and He Weizhuang are related.)
  • Tencent owns 19.55% of the shares.
  • Sequoia owns 16.21% of the shares.
  • Other major investors include Qiming, Starquest Capital and Kunling, which respectively own 7.12%, 6.51% and 5.32% of the shares.

What People Are Saying

  • "The demands of patients, hospitals, insurance companies, pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies are all different. How to meet each individual demand and find a core profit model is the key to Yuanxin Technology's future growth." — Xu Yuchen, insurance industry analyst and member of China Association of Actuaries, in Chinese publication Lanjinger.
  • "The window of opportunity caused by the pandemic, as well as the high valuations of those companies that have gone public, brings hope to other medical services companies…[But] the window of opportunity is closing and the potential of Internet healthcare is yet to be explored with new ideas. Therefore, traditional, asset-heavy healthcare companies need to take this opportunity and go public as soon as possible." —Wang Hang, founder and CEO of online healthcare platform Haodf, in state media China.com.

Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.

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