Facebook has banned the personal accounts of academics who researched ad transparency and the spread of misinformation on the social network. Facebook says the group violated its term of service by scraping user data without permission. But the academics say they are being silenced for exposing problems on Facebook’s platform.
The researchers were part of NYU Ad Observatory, a project created to examine the origin and spread of political ads on Facebook. As the group explained in a blog post in May, their aim is to uncover who pays for political ads and how they are being targeted. Such work has important implications for understanding the spread of disinformation on Facebook, as the company does not fact-check political ads.
To help their work, the researchers created a browser plug-in called Ad Observer, which automatically collects data on what political ads users are being shown and why those ads are being targeted to them. As per its website, the plug-in does not collect any personally-identifying information, including users’ name, Facebook ID number, or friend list.
NYU’s research offered new insights into Facebook’s problems
Data collected by Ad Observer is then made publicly available to researchers and journalists who use the information to reveal trends and problems on Facebook’s platform. Stories directly resulting from this work include Facebook’s failure to disclose who pays for some political ads, and how far-right misinformation is more engaging than misinformation from center or left sources.
Facebook offers some of this information voluntarily through its Ad Library, but not all. For example, it doesn’t share data about how ads are targeted based on users’ interests. People can find this for themselves by clicking on ads they’re shown, and it’s this data that was collected by the NYU. (Facebook does provide information on ad targeting through a special research program called FORT, but this is controlled and filtered by Facebook itself.)
Laura Edelson, an NYU researcher involved in the project, and whose personal account was banned by Facebook, says the company wants to end independent scrutiny of its platform.
“Facebook is silencing us because our work often calls attention to problems on its platform,” Edelson told Bloomberg News in an emailed statement. “Worst of all, Facebook is using user privacy, a core belief that we have always put first in our work, as a pretext for doing this. If this episode demonstrates anything it is that Facebook should not have veto power over who is allowed to study them.”
Facebook says it banned the researchers because they violated the social network’s terms of service, and that the Ad Observer plug-in “collected data about Facebook users who did not install or consent to the collection.” Facebook’s wording suggests the researchers were collecting data about private individuals without consent but, as reported by Protocol in March, Facebook is actually referring to “advertisers’ accounts, including the names and profile pictures of public Pages that run political ads and the contents of those ads.” (The Verge asked Facebook to confirm this but the company declined to comment.)
Facebook certainly has good reason to be wary of third-parties collecting data from its site. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was only made possible because the company did not exercise proper oversight over how information could be scraped from its platform. It resulted in a $5 billion fine for the company and new privacy checks by the FTC.
Facebook now says it’s required to ban the NYC researchers under these FTC guidelines, as well as disabling their associated Pages and platform access. However, some privacy experts disagree with this. Jonathan Mayer, a professor at Princeton University who researches technology and law, said on Twitter that “Facebook’s legal argument is bogus.”
Facebook says it repeatedly offered to work with the NYU researchers by providing the data they need directly, and first warned the group they might be banned from the site last year.