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New Research on the Relationship Between Facebook Friendships and Economic Opportunity

In 2018, a team of researchers, led by economist Raj Chetty, approached Meta with a question: Can a person’s social network help lift them out of poverty? Chetty and his team at Harvard’s Opportunity Insights are known for their groundbreaking research on economic opportunity in the United States and how public policy can improve a person’s economic mobility. They have long speculated that people’s social connections play a large role in shaping the opportunities people have to find jobs, succeed in school or find help during a crisis. But they didn’t have access to the data necessary to explore their hypothesis. 

Together, Opportunity Insights and Meta embarked on a years-long research project that has culminated in two papers published today in the journal Nature. It also led to the creation of the Social Capital Atlas, new datasets and research insights that uses data from Facebook friendships to provide measures of social capital across ZIP codes, high schools and colleges in the United States. Meta is making this dataset available through our Data for Good program. We’ve also partnered with Opportunity Insights to build tools to easily visualize and download the data at socialcapital.org.

This work is a major contribution to our understanding of the relationship between social connections and economic opportunity. And it shows how Meta’s data can be used for societally significant research when shared responsibly and in a way that protects people’s privacy.

Chetty’s Opportunity Insights group and researchers at Harvard, New York University and Stanford partnered with Meta researchers to analyze privacy-protected data from US Facebook and Instagram users. They used a range of techniques to preserve people’s privacy, including methods like differential privacy and aggregation.

The researchers found that social connections play an important role in helping people achieve economic mobility. Neighborhoods that foster more connections between low-income and high-income people tend to have higher levels of mobility. The research also highlights why it is crucial that policymakers take social factors and interventions into account when designing policies, such as the need for mentorship programs in under-resourced schools to complement financial support. The Social Capital Atlas provides data to better understand where such efforts would be most valuable. 

We hope to contribute to similar research projects around the world. For instance, our teams are beginning to explore research into the role of social capital in communities in the UK and deepen our understanding into the role of social connections in society worldwide. 

Sharing timely and relevant insights is a long-standing practice at Meta. For example, this project developed through work done by Meta’s New Product Experimentation (NPE) team to explore how data can be used to solve city and community problems. And our Data for Good team works to build and share privacy-protected maps, surveys and data insights that support the work of over 550 partners in over 70 countries around the world. Learn more about our work to share data with researchers here.

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