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The professor’s learning: “As a Social Media Researcher, I Cannot Accept Money from the Tech Industry”

Professor Michael Bang Petersen from Aarhus University received a grant he never used from Meta. He sent the money back before he started the project because he was hung up in the press. “World-renowned Danish researcher presented ‘rosy’ conclusions about social media – but failed to tell about the Facebook grant of DKK 863,000,” it said in Berlingske on 27 February 2022.

It was just over five weeks after he had participated in a hearing in the Danish Parliament on misinformation, “The democratic conversation on social media”.

As a researcher in political psychology and social media, Michael Bang Petersen presented at the hearing a conclusion that it is a myth that there is so much fake news on social media;
the research shows that about 5% of the news shared on social media like Twitter refers to web domains that spread misinformation. And that’s including the Russian bots.

“There’s also not the level of echo chambers on social media that many people think. SoMe actually break down most and you can have a conversation with people you disagree with,” Michael Bang Petersen said, noting that much of the hate on social media arises precisely for that reason rather than because of echo chambers.

Meta’s political lobbyist in the Nordics also attended the hearing. He strongly agreed with the professor. On the whole, it sounded as if the two sitting next to each other at the hearing were very much in agreement and in sync with each other.

“I didn’t think about declaring at the hearing that I had received funding from Meta for a completely different project than the knowledge I shared at the hearing. But if someone thinks I should have declared it, then, of course, I should have. Period,” explains Michael Bang Petersen, who in 2020 received funds from Facebook – a so-called unrestricted gift – with the aim of ‘chasing the psychological motivations behind political hatred and the sharing of misinformation on social media’.

“I already had a large social media project financed by the Carlsberg Foundation and I had an idea that I couldn’t afford with the money. So I tried the Velux Foundation, which said no. And then I saw an open international call from Facebook, which we applied.”

“I immediately thought that it was okay to apply, because it was an open call, and there was clarification of full arm’s length, and in addition, there are a great many of my colleagues, internationally recognized peers, who have received that money. I saw not some warning lights.”

The contract with Facebook is the most hands-off contract Michael Bang Petersen has experienced. An unrestricted research gift has only one requirement, and that is that the money is used according to the university’s rules.

“The place where the influence can come from Big Tech is in the selection of research projects. But here it was a project I already had in the drawer,” he says.

According to Michael Bang Petersen, the debate around Big Tech and misinformation is heated, and he found the article in Berlingske to be very sharply angled. He has learned the following lessons from it:

“I can’t accept money from the tech industry as a social media researcher. So I won’t do that again. I have something important to say. But I’ve also taken a more cynical view of the criticism of social media itself. There are economic and political interests the other way too. Traditional media are challenged by social media. And politicians push the responsibility for, for example, polarization onto social media. I find that there is not always sufficient interest in gaining a deep understanding of the actual conditions and social media issues,” he says.

Having said that, Michael Bang Petersen is critical of Big Tech having too much to say.

“The way I think Big Tech gets something out of research funding is not through controlling the research, but it’s through knowledge sharing. You become part of their network and you’re asked about things like challenges in identifying conspiracy theories on social media. I have participated in some meetings of that nature there. But it is as if anyone else asked for my expert advice. There is clearly a soft power in the fact that they tell me that they are aware of the problems. They gain from the money they give out by drawing on my knowledge.”

From the report Big Tech Soft Power In Danmark