Updated: Aug 21
Recently, Facebook disabled the accounts of New York University (NYU) researchers probing into political ads and fake news on the social network. The company said that it suspended the academics from the site due to them violating privacy guidelines.
"The researchers gathered data by creating a browser extension that was programmed to evade our detection systems and scrape data such as usernames, ads, links to user profiles and 'Why am I seeing this ad?' information, some of which is not publicly viewable on Facebook. The extension also collected data about Facebook users who did not install it or consent to the collection. The researchers had previously archived this information in a now offline, publicly-available database," wrote Facebook's Product Management Director Mike Clark in a blog post.
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Clark was referring to the AdObserver browser extension made by the NYU Ad Observatory Project, a research initiative that aims to understand how political advertisers target their messages to specific audiences. The extension, which copies data on Facebook ads, informs users that their data will be anonymised and strictly used for research purposes.
It assured people that downloading the extension was voluntary and that it only collects the following information: the advertiser's name and disclosure string, the ad's text, image, and link, details from Facebook about how the ad was targeted, when the ad was shown to a user and a user's browser language.
Facebook stated that months ago, it made efforts to accommodate the researchers' work for the NYU Ad Observatory project by giving them access to information without compromising users' privacy.
Laura Edelson, an NYU Tandon School of Engineering Researcher and an NYU Ad Observatory Project Member, begged to differ. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, the PhD candidate revealed that Facebook sent a cease-and-desist letter compelling her and her project mates to stop looking into political ads on the site. The tech company also threatened "additional enforcement action".
Credit: New York University
As Facebook suspended the personal accounts of people involved in the research team, Edelson and her colleagues can no longer access Facebook’s Ad Library — a vital tool they used to spot misinformation in political ads on Facebook.
"By suspending our accounts, Facebook has effectively ended all this work. 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," tweeted Edelson.
Edelson also shared that her team studied how Facebook promotes partisan misinformation and how political ads on the site led users to distrust the integrity of the US elections.
US Senator Mark Warner hinted that the social network could be cracking down on watchdog initiatives exposing Facebook ads.
"This latest action by Facebook to cut off an outside group’s transparency efforts – efforts that have repeatedly facilitated revelations of ads violating Facebook’s Terms of Service, ads for frauds and predatory financial schemes, and political ads that were improperly omitted from Facebook’s lackluster Ad Library – is deeply concerning," wrote Warner in a press release.
For Damon McCoy, an NYU Tandon School of Engineering Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, Facebook’s moves threaten academic freedom.
"Allowing Facebook to dictate who can investigate what is occurring on its platform is not in the public interest. 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," said McCoy in a statement.
Written by Sophia Lopez