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Facebook has made good on its threat to kick out a group of researchers who’ve been among the platform’s biggest critics.
The Cybersecurity for Democracy project at New York University has revealed major flaws in Facebook political ad transparency tools and highlighted how Facebook’s algorithms were amplifying misinformation. Most recently, it helped track vaccine disinformation in coordination with the Virality Project, a group that tries to neutralize false narratives spreading on social media.
Despite the obvious benefits of the work being done by these researchers, on Tuesday evening, the company cut the cord.
“This evening, Facebook suspended my Facebook account and the accounts of several people associated with Cybersecurity for Democracy, our team at NYU,” Laura Edelson, one of the researchers at NYU, tweeted. “This has the effect of cutting off our access to Facebook's Ad Library data, as well as CrowdTangle.”
Edelson’s colleague Damon McCoy called Facebook’s decision “disgraceful” at a time when the disinformation around COVID-19 and vaccines is literally costing lives.
“It is disgraceful that Facebook is attempting to quash legitimate research that is informing the public about disinformation on their platform,” McCoy said in a statement shared by Edelson.
“With its platform awash in vaccine disinformation and partisan campaigns to manipulate the public, Facebook should be welcoming independent research, not shutting it down.”
Edelson said in an emailed statement sent to VICE News that the decision to suspend the accounts happened “hours after she had informed the platform that she and McCoy were studying the spread of disinformation about January 6 on the social media platform.”
Facebook told VICE News that “any insinuation that this was an abrupt removal of access or retaliation does not comport with reality.” It didn’t respond to follow up questions about when the decision was taken.
Facebook’s decision was also slammed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has in the past questioned CEO Mark Zuckerberg about the decision to threaten the NYU researchers.
“As we face threats to our democracy, we need more transparency from online platforms, not less,”Klobuchar said. “That is why I am deeply troubled by the news that Facebook is cutting off researcher access to political advertising data, which has shown that the company continues to sell millions of dollars’ worth of political ads without proper disclosures.”
While the shutdown was unexpected, Facebook’s ire about a tool the researchers created dates back over a year.
The tool is a browser extension called Ad Observer, which users voluntarily download. Users give the extension access to their personal Facebook pages in order to collect anonymized data about the ads they’re seeing. That information then goes into a public database, where journalists and researchers can see how and where politicians are focusing their ad spend.
Facebook felt Ad Observer was a breach of users’ privacy and issued the researchers a warning in a meeting last summer, before the tool was even launched. In October, two weeks before the presidential election, Facebook sent a cease-and-desist letter, giving them 45 days to shut it down.
That deadline passed at the end of November, and at the time it looked like Facebook had relented and allowed the tool to remain in place. The media coverage of Facebook’s letter had also been a boon for the project: the number of people who consented to share their data via Ad Observer doubled to over 16,000 people in the space of a few weeks.
Since last November, the two sides have been trying to come to a formal agreement, but on Tuesday those negotiations ended abruptly.
“NYU’s Ad Observatory project studied political ads using unauthorized means to access and collect data from Facebook, in violation of our Terms of Service,” Mike Clark, Facebook’s product management director, wrote in a blog post. “We took these actions to stop unauthorized scraping and protect people’s privacy in line with our privacy program under the [Federal Trade Commission] Order.”
But the researchers involved, and other experts in the field, believe that Facebook is simply using the regulatory body as an excuse to eradicate independent researchers who have repeatedly highlighted significant flaws in the platform.
Johnathon Mayer, an assistant professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University, said Facebook’s claim that it is required to take this action because of rules imposed by the FTC is “bogus.”
“There is, of course, no requirement that Facebook prohibit independent accountability research and journalism in its terms,” Mayer tweeted. “This is a classic blame-the-regulator dodge.”
And as Axel Burns, a social media researcher at Queensland University of Technology pointed out on Twitter, “this research is necessary, of course, because the tools Facebook provides are so inadequate — the Ad Library is severely limited and (as a single point of data access operated by Facebook) can't be trusted or verified to provide all the relevant data.”
Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, a nonprofit trade association for the digital content industry, said that Facebook has a history of suspending accounts of people who criticize it: It suspended the account of Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie. Kint added this latest suspension will have a “chilling” effect on the wider research community.
“It’s outrageous they would do this,” Kint told VICE News. “Facebook has used access to their platforms as punitive damage in the past. This isn’t only about Facebook not wanting to be held accountable but chilling all others who expose the harms in Facebook’s business practices.
Some experts have also contrasted the suspension of the NYU researchers’ accounts to the lack of action Facebook took against Clearview AI, a company that scraped hundreds of millions of images from the platform. Those same experts pointed out that Clearview AI is backed by Peter Thiel, one of Facebook’s biggest and earliest investors, who is also a member of the company’s board.
“Outside analysis of Facebook content from essential organizations like the Ad Observatory are increasingly exposing Facebook as a breeding ground for extremism and right wing trash,” a spokesperson for the Real Facebook Oversight Board, an activist group established to counter the company’s own Oversight Board, and of which Edelson is a member, told VICE News.
“Now like the authoritarian governments they court, Facebook is cracking down on its critics.”
Several others have pointed out the inherent irony in Facebook, a company that bulk collects information about users’ activity—both on and off its platform—criticizing researchers who are attempting to better understand disinformation and nefarious political advertising tactics on Facebook.
“Allowing Facebook to dictate who can investigate what is occurring on its platform is not in the public interest,” McCoy said.
“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.”