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Facebook cut off accounts of researchers examining its political ads and misinformation on the platform. (Photo: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

'Truly Disturbing': Facebook Blasted for Blocking NYU Researchers Examining Ad Model and Misinformation

"It is disgraceful that Facebook is attempting to squash legitimate research that is informing the public about disinformation on their platform."

Jessica Corbett

A drawn out battle between Facebook and New York University researchers focused on political advertising and the spread of misinformation on the platform ramped up late Tuesday when the tech giant disabled the accounts, apps, pages, and platform access associated with their project.

"With its platform awash in vaccine disinformation and partisan campaigns to manipulate the public, Facebook should be welcoming independent research, not shutting it down."
—Damon McCoy, NYU

Facebook's product management director, Mike Clark, said in part that "after our repeated attempts to bring their research into compliance" with the company's terms of service, "we took these actions to stop unauthorized scraping and protect people's privacy in line with our privacy program" under a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) order.

Bloomberg explained that Clark is claiming Facebook aims to remain compliant with a 2019 data privacy agreement reached with the FTC after the company was fined a record $5 billion.

Meanwhile, critics of Facebook—including the targeted researchers—blasted the company's actions against the tool Ad Observer and its operators as a bid to silence independent research.

Highlighting one of the researcher's Twitter threads on the developments, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said that he has "asked the FTC to confirm that this excuse is as bogus as it sounds."

CNET detailed how the controversial Ad Observer tool works:

NYU created a plug-in Facebook users could add to their web browser that copied the ads they saw on the social network and stored that data in a public database. The browser extension also collected usernames, links to user profiles, and information about why users see a particular ad, information that isn't publicly available.

Laura Edelson, the lead researcher behind NYU's Cybersecurity for Democracy—which operates Ad Observer and Ad Observatory, a public website for exploring trends in Facebook advertising—outlined the impact of the company suspending her and others' accounts.

"This has the effect of cutting off our access to Facebook's Ad Library data, as well as Crowdtangle," said Edelson, a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering. "Over the last several years, we've used this access to uncover systemic flaws in the Facebook Ad Library, to identify misinformation in political ads, including many sowing distrust in our election system, and to study Facebook's apparent amplification of partisan misinformation."

"By suspending our accounts, Facebook has tried to shut down all this work," she continued. "Facebook has also effectively cut off access to more than two dozen other researchers and journalists who get access to Facebook data through our project, including our work measuring vaccine misinformation with the Virality Project and many other partners who rely on our data."

Shortly before the 2020 U.S. election, Facebook sent Edelson and Damon McCoy, an NYU associate professor of computer science and engineering, a cease-and-desist letter demanding that they discontinue use of Ad Observer and take down the results of their research.

"It is disgraceful that Facebook is attempting to squash legitimate research that is informing the public about disinformation on their platform," McCoy said Wednesday.

"With its platform awash in vaccine disinformation and partisan campaigns to manipulate the public, Facebook should be welcoming independent research, not shutting it down," he argued. "Allowing Facebook to dictate who can investigate what is occurring on its platform is not in the public interest."

McCoy added that "Facebook should not be able to cynically invoke user privacy to shut down research that puts them in an unflattering light, particularly when the 'users' Facebook is talking about are advertisers who have consented to making their ads public."

Alex Abdo, litigation director at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, concurred, declaring that "we can't allow Facebook to decide what the public gets to know about Facebook. Independent research that respects user privacy is absolutely crucial right now."

"It's essential to figuring out how disinformation spreads on the platform, how advertisers exploit Facebook's micro-targeting tools, and how Facebook's system of amplification may be pushing us further apart," Abdo said. "This research should be celebrated and protected. It's disappointing and truly disturbing that Facebook is trying to shut this kind of research down."

Abdo and Seth Berlin, a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Ballard Spahr, are representing Edelson and McCoy in their personal capacity. Berlin challenged Facebook's argument for cutting off the researchers' access to the platform.

"As a pretext for preventing NYU's researchers from exposing flaws on Facebook's platform, the company is making the truly remarkable claim that political advertising is private. But the whole point of advertising is that it is intended to be public," he said. "For this research, Facebook users voluntarily donate their advertising information while remaining completely anonymous, and the researchers do not collect any private user information. Facebook's primary justification for trying to shut down this important research simply doesn't hold up."

In a blog post Wednesday, Marshall Erwin, senior director of trust and security with the internet giant Mozilla, explained why Facebook's stated legal reasons are without merit.

The actions Tuesday were part of "a troubling pattern we have witnessed from Facebook," he noted, and the company's claims about accounts being shut down due to privacy problems with the tool "simply do not hold water."

"The truth is that major platforms continue to be a safe haven for disinformation and extremism—wreaking havoc on people, our elections and society," Erwin added, noting that Mozilla has recommended the researchers' tool. "We need tools like Ad Observer to help us shine a light on the darkest corners of the web. And rather than standing in the way of efforts to hold platforms accountable, we all need to work together to support and improve these tools."

Facebook has faced mounting scrutiny and criticism from top political figures and civil society groups for its advertising and data practices, contributions to the spread of dangerous misinformation and hate speech, and alleged anti-competitive behavior.

Noting that he has long called on tech giants including Facebook to "work with independent researchers whose efforts improve the safety of social platforms by exposing harmful activity," Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said Wednesday that "it's clear that Congress must now act to bring more clarity to the world of online advertising."

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