Facebook deletes personal accounts of researchers studying political ads
- Facebook Inc. has disabled the personal accounts of a group of New York University researchers studying political ads on social network, claim they are scrapping data in violation of the company's terms of service.
The company also disabled research access to Facebook APIs, technology that was used to share data from other apps or services to the researchers and cut off others apps and pages associated with the research project, according to Mike Clark, a director of product management on Facebook's privacy team.
Researchers are part of a project called the NYU Ad Observatory, which asks people to download a browser extension that collects data on what political ads the users see on Facebook and how those ads were targeted.
Political ads on Facebook have been a source of contention for years. The company has a controversial policy against fact checking political ads, which led to criticism that candidates would pay the company to spread lies through their ads. In an effort to fight misinformation, Facebook halted all new political ads in the week leading up to the 2020 U.S. election in an effort to prevent bias.
Last October, Facebook sent a cease-and-desist letter to the researchers demanding they stop collecting targeting data about Facebook political ads and threatening 'additional enforcement actions. Laura Edelson, a researcher at NYU's Tandon School of Engineering, told the Wall Street Journal at that time that the group would stop if Facebook published more nuanced data itself.
Clark said Facebook offers targeting data sets for political ads and has suggested the New YorkU group use this information. According to Facebook's terms of service, a user may not 'access or collect data from our products using automated means or attempt to access data you don't have permission to access.
Facebook moved to penalize the researchers in part to remain in compliance with a 2019 Federal Trade Commission data privacy agreement with Amazon, in which the company was punished for failing to investigate how data was collected by outside developers, Clark said. Facebook was fined $5 billion as part of a settlement with regulators.
Edelson, a Ph.D. student in computer science and the lead researcher behind the group, confirmed Tuesday night that her personal Facebook account and those of some of her colleagues were disabled? By cutting the group's access to Facebook's data stream, NYU is essentially ending NYU’s attempt to study misinformation in political ads, she added.
[Facebook is locking us because our work often calls attention to problems on its platform, Edelson wrote in an emailed statement. 'Worst of all, Facebook is using user privacy, a core belief that we have always put to front in our work, as a pretext for doing this. If this episode demonstrates anything it is that Twitter can not have veto power over who can see them.
The NYU led research project started in anticipation of the 2020 U.S. Presidential election to better study the thousands of political advertisements on the social network. Political ads on Facebook are searched in a searchable database, including some demographic data about the gender and location of people who saw the ad. But the database does not include information about how an ad was targeted, part of the information the Ad Observatory was trying to collect.
Facebook's political ad library is 'is complicated to use, untold numbers of political ads are missing and a significant element is lacking: how advertisers choose which specific demographics and groups of people should see their ad - and who shouldn't, according to the Ad Observatory researchers.
For example, the Ad Observatory revealed that Trevor Noah, a Georgia Democrat, targeted Facebook users who were interested in topics like former President Barack Obama, comedian Jon Ossoff and Time Magazine during his campaign for the U.S. Senate.