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NYU Researchers Were Studying Disinformation On Facebook. The Company Cut Them Off

Facebook cut off access to NYU researchers studying political ads and COVID-19 misinformation, saying their work violated its terms of service.
Jenny Kane
Facebook cut off access to NYU researchers studying political ads and COVID-19 misinformation, saying their work violated its terms of service.

Facebook has blocked a team of New York University researchers studying political ads and COVID-19 misinformation from accessing its site, a move that critics say is meant to silence research that makes the company look bad.

The researchers at the NYU Ad Observatory launched a tool last year to collect data about the political ads people see on Facebook. Around 16,000 people have installed the browser extension. It enables them to share data with the researchers about which ads the users are shown and why those ads were targeted at them.

Facebook said on Tuesday that it had disabled the researchers' personal accounts, pages, apps and access to its platform.

"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.

He said Facebook took action "to stop unauthorized scraping and protect people's privacy" in compliance with an agreement it reached with the Federal Trade Commission in 2019, when it paid a $5 billion penalty stemming from the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal.

But on Wednesday, the researchers said they're not gathering private information about Facebook users.

"We really don't collect anything that isn't an ad, that isn't public, and we're pretty careful about how we do it," said Laura Edelson, a doctoral candidate at NYU who helps lead the research project and whose account Facebook disabled. She noted that the code for the browser extension is public and that it has been reviewed by outside experts.

Facebook says the browser extension violates its privacy rules because it collects information about advertisers, including their names, Facebook IDs and photos. The company says the data collected by the tool could also be used to identify information about users who interacted with the ads but did not consent to share their information.

Damon McCoy, an associate professor at NYU who was also cut off from Facebook, said he believes the company is using privacy claims as a pretext because it's unhappy with the team's research.

"It feels like Facebook is trying to intimidate us, and not just us, but they're trying to send a message to other independent researchers that are trying to study their platform," he said. "We need transparency and accountability."

Research revealed Facebook's failures ahead of 2020 election

NYU Cybersecurity for Democracy, the team of researchers behind the Ad Observatory project, found misleading political ads thriving on Facebook in November 2020 despite the platform's policies; uncovered flaws in the company's political ad disclosures; and tracked the degree to which right-wing misinformation gets more engagement on the platform. They are also part of a project that is tracking false claims about COVID-19 and vaccines on social media, a subject that has become a source of tension between Facebook and the White House in recent weeks.

"This is sort of a blind men and an elephant problem," Edelson said.

To gain a more complete picture of disinformation on Facebook, she said, "we really need to be able to put the pieces together, from the way ads that advertise a certain message are publicized to the way they're targeted" to messages that aren't ads but that are posted by people looking to spread false information in a coordinated way.

Facebook publishes its own library of political ads with information about who paid for an ad and when it ran, but it does not include details on how ads are targeted to specific subsets of users. It does make ad targeting data available to researchers who participate in a program it controls.

In the blog post, Facebook's Clark said that the company offers researchers "privacy-protective methods to collect and analyze data" and that "we welcome research that holds us accountable, and doesn't compromise the security of our platform or the privacy of the people who use it."

The NYU researchers say their work is an important independent check on Facebook.

"We don't think Facebook should get to decide who gets to study it and who doesn't," Edelson said.

Facebook declined to comment further on Edelson and McCoy's claims.

Congress urged to require more transparency in online ads

On Wednesday, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., called Facebook's decision to disable the NYU team's access "deeply concerning."

"For several years now, I have called on social media platforms like Facebook to work with, and better empower, independent researchers, whose efforts consistently improve the integrity and safety of social media platforms by exposing harmful and exploitative activity," he said in a statement. "Instead, Facebook has seemingly done the opposite."

Warner also called on Congress "to act to bring greater transparency to the shadowy world of online advertising."

Fellow Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon also slammed the social network, writing in a Twitter post: "After years of abusing users' privacy, it's rich for Facebook to use it as an excuse to crack down on researchers exposing its problems."

Wyden said he had contacted the FTC to ask about Facebook's claim that it was concerned the NYU tool violated its privacy order, calling that excuse "bogus."

The FTC declined to comment.

Ramya Krishnan, a staff attorney at Columbia University's Knight First Amendment Institute, said Facebook's decision to cut off the NYU team illustrates how powerful the platform has become — and why lawmakers need to act.

"The company functions as a gatekeeper to journalism and research about how the company's platform works and the impact of its platform on society. And we think that that is untenable," she said. "The public urgently needs to know and needs to understand the implications of Facebook's platform for public discourse and democracy."

The Knight Institute, which is representing NYU's Edelson and McCoy in this matter, urged Facebook back in 2018 to create a "safe harbor" provision in its terms of service that would allow academics and journalists to research and collect data from its platform, while protecting users' privacy. But, Krishnan, said negotiations with the company ended in a stalemate.

Now, she said, the solution lies in Washington. She says Congress should "mandate transparency" on social media platforms and create a safe harbor law protecting research.

"We're not saying that Facebook doesn't have legitimate reasons for, in general, prohibiting scraping," she said. "But intentionally or not, those prohibitions are also impeding journalists' and researchers' ability to study, understand and report about the platform."

Editor's note: Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.