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Watchdog Fights Back as Facebook Attempts to Shut Down Research Exposing 'Political Disinformation' in Ad Practices

"Rather than combat the rampant disinformation and hate on its platform, Facebook has decided to go after the people who are helping voters understand who is trying to influence their votes."

In response to Facebook's attempt to cancel a NYU research project that has been collecting data about the company's ad-targeting practices, Common Cause has launched a petition imploring the social media giant to "shut down disinformation on their platform—instead of trying to shut down the advocates and academics who are trying to expose it." (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In response to Facebook's attempt to cancel a NYU research project that has been collecting data about the company's ad-targeting practices, Common Cause has launched a petition imploring the social media giant to "shut down disinformation on their platform—instead of trying to shut down the advocates and academics who are trying to expose it." (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In response to Facebook's attempt to shut down a New York University research project that has been collecting data about the social media corporation's ad-targeting practices, progressive advocacy group Common Cause has launched a petition drive imploring the technology behemoth to "let the program continue and instead shut down the rampant disinformation on the platform."

"Despite the company's promises to safeguard our democracy, Facebook is now attempting to stop public interest researchers from NYU from looking into the company's ad-targeting and ad-labeling practices."
—Yosef Getachew, Common Cause

After researchers at the NYU Ad Observatory recruited more than 6,500 volunteers to collect data about the ads Facebook shows them by using a specially designed browser extension, the social media giant informed the university in a mid-October letter that the project violates the site's rules against bulk data collection, according to reporting from The Hill late last week.

Moreover, Facebook threatened to pursue "additional enforcement action" if the university does not terminate the research and delete the data it has collected by the end of November.

Laura Edelson, the lead researcher on the project, explained that "we developed Ad Observatory and the Ad Observer plug-in to deliver an essential level of cybersecurity analysis that is otherwise unavailable to the public, and which makes clear who is trying to influence us and why."

"Transparency is essential," Edelson noted, "given the contention and disinformation coursing through our current election cycle." Misinformation and disinformation stemming from political ads, she added, "is a cybersecurity vulnerability for our democracy."

Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, described Facebook's effort to undermine NYU's research project as "a very bad look." According to Zuckerman, "recruiting volunteers to donate data is a responsible way" to improve society's "understanding [of] how political ads are targeted."

"Frankly it's shocking that Facebook is trying to suppress research into political disinformation in the lead-up to the election," said Alex Abdo, litigation director at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. "There's really no question more urgent right now than the question of how Facebook's decisions are shaping and perhaps distorting political discourse."

"It would be terrible for democracy," Abdo added, "if Facebook is allowed to be the gatekeeper to journalism and research about Facebook."

Yosef Getachew, director of the Media and Democracy program at Common Cause, said Monday in a statement that Americans "have a right to know who or what is trying to influence our vote at the ballot box and ultimately our government." 

"Facebook goes to great lengths and considerable expense to portray itself as a champion of democracy," Getachew noted, "yet here again it is exposing itself as unwilling to follow through on any commitment that might harm its bottom line."

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Getachew added that "despite the company's promises to safeguard our democracy, Facebook is now attempting to stop public interest researchers from NYU from looking into the company's ad-targeting and ad-labeling practices."

According to Common Cause, the NYU researchers' analysis of the ads received by thousands of volunteers in their social media feeds has "exposed major failures in Facebook's commitment to vet, properly label who paid for the ads, and fact-check political ads on its platform."

"Frankly it's shocking that Facebook is trying to suppress research into political disinformation in the lead-up to the election. There's really no question more urgent right now than the question of how Facebook's decisions are shaping and perhaps distorting political discourse."
—Alex Abdo, Knight First Amendment Institute

Prior to being threatened by the powerful social media corporation, researchers discovered that several political advertisers were breaking Facebook's disclosure rules with impunity. 

The revelation that "disclosure violations in political advertising on Facebook are widespread" would demonstrate "the platform's failure to comply with" the proposed requirements of the Honest Ads Act—legislation endorsed by the social media company that "would require digital platforms to clearly state who paid for political ads and provide a description of the audience targeted with enforcement of violations by the Federal Elections Commission."

Facebook privacy policy official Allison Hendrix described the company's Ad Library, an archive of ads on its platform, as "an effective tracking tool" that upholds "both transparency and privacy."

But according to Common Cause, "Facebook's own Ad Library fails to provide adequate transparency and its inconsistent enforcement of its disclosure policies have helped facilitate the spread of election disinformation."

"Instead of correcting its own documented failings and living up to its commitments, Facebook is now demanding that the NYU researchers halt their research," said Jesse Littlewood, vice president for campaigns at Common Cause.

"This is an outrageous act of hypocrisy," Littlewood added. "Rather than combat the rampant disinformation and hate on its platform, Facebook has decided to go after the people who are helping voters understand who is trying to influence their votes."

Littlewood explained that Common Cause organized its petition to "demand that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his team shut down disinformation on their platform—instead of trying to shut down the advocates and academics who are trying to expose it."

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