For Immediate Release

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David Vance (202) 736-5712 or dvance@commoncause.org

Facebook Demands End to NYU Program That Has Exposed Social Media Giant’s Failures to Uphold Commitments to Safeguard Democracy

WASHINGTON - Facebook has demanded that New York University (NYU) shut down a research project that has been collecting data about the company’s ad-targeting practices. The NYU Ad Observatory, a project of the university’s engineering school, has recruited more than 6,500 volunteers - including many Common Cause members - to use a specially designed browser extension to collect data about the ads Facebook shows them. Facebook has informed NYU that the project violates provisions in its terms of service that prohibit bulk data collection from its site. The social media behemoth has threatened further enforcement action if NYU does not comply. In response, Common Cause has launched a petition drive urging the social media giant to let the program continue and instead shut down the rampant disinformation on the platform.

“As Americans we have a right to know who or what is trying to influence our vote at the ballot box and ultimately our government,” said Yosef Getachew, Director of Common Cause’s Media and Democracy Program. “Facebook goes to great lengths and considerable expense to portray itself as a champion of democracy, yet here again it is exposing itself as unwilling to follow through on any commitment that might harm its bottom line. 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.”

The NYU researchers have already exposed major failures in Facebook's commitment to vet, properly label who paid for the ads, and fact-check political ads on its platform. In analyzing the ads that thousands of volunteers are receiving through their Facebook feeds, the researchers discovered that numerous political advertisers were violating Facebook's disclosure rules, yet the company has been letting it happen.

In the past, Facebook has endorsed the Honest Ads Act – legislation 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. But NYU researchers have highlighted how disclosure violations in political advertising on Facebook are widespread, demonstrating the platform’s failure to comply with what would be required by the Honest Ads Act. 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.

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“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 Common Cause Vice President for Campaigns. “This is an outrageous act of hypocrisy. 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. That is why Common Cause has launched a petition drive 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.”

To view the Common Cause petition, click here.

To view this statement online, click here.

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Common Cause is a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization founded in 1970 by John Gardner as a vehicle for citizens to make their voices heard in the political process and to hold their elected leaders accountable to the public interest.

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