A team of University of Canberra researchers are among the first in the world to get access to a massive trove of Facebook data to examine how Australians use social media to access and share news.
Social media giant Facebook has agreed to give researchers from the university's News and Research Media Centre access to an exabyte (one billion gigabytes) of raw data containing information on 38 million URLs shared at least 100 times each on the platform.
Dr Sora Park, who leads the research team, said it was a exciting opportunity to gain insights into how people were using social media to get and share news.
"Facebook has never released any data to show the quantity and type of news people see on Facebook," Dr Park said.
"Now, we will be able to use this new data to measure how traditional sources of news compete with newer news outlets."
The US-based Social Science Research Council selected Dr Park's team as one of 24 research groups in the global Social Science One program to get access to the data.
The arrangement is the result of exhaustive negotiations with Facebook spanning almost two years.
Dr Park said this was the first time Facebook has given researchers access to its data after shutting down sharing arrangements when the Cambridge Analytica scandal erupted two years ago.
Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg was forced to defend the social media giant before the US Congress after it was revealed that the political consultancy had been able to harvest personal data from millions of Facebook accounts.
Research undertaken by the News and Research Media Centre has found that people are increasingly using social media as their main source of news, especially among younger age groups.
The centre's Digital News Report for 2019 found that 62 per cent were concerned about fake news and almost half were distrustful of social media.
Despite this, little more than a third said they had checked a news story accessed via social media for accuracy.
There is mounting international concern about the use of social media to promote and propagate false and inaccurate information.
In the United Sates, intelligence agencies have accused Russian government operatives of using social media to spread misinformation designed to influence presidential elections, and the World Health Organisation is working with Facebook, Twitter, Google and social media influencers to combat misleading and false claims about the Covid-19 virus.
Dr Park said her research would look at the extent to which people shared news through Facebook, what sort of news they shared and to what extent people sought to verify information by seeking alternate sources or fact checking websites.
She warned that although many people were wary about the accuracy of online news, relatively few knew how to fact check or were inclined to test for accuracy.
"Audiences are not that ready yet," she said.
"Our studies show that news literacy levels are very low."
"We endeavour to map out the kind of information people are inclined to share and see what proportion of that is actually news, rather than interesting stories."
Dr Park said researchers had to receive ethics approval before applying to undertake the study and had to abide by stringent privacy protections.
She said Facebook had also treated the information to ensure that individual bytes of data could not be traced back to individuals.
Dr Park's team has been awarded almost $75,700 to undertake the year-long research project.