Facebook disabled New York University researchers studying political ads
- Facebook Inc. has disabled the personal accounts of a group of New York University researchers studying political ads on the social network, claiming they are scraping data in violation of the company's Terms of Service.
The company also disabled researchers' access to Facebook APIs, technology used to share data from the site to other sites, and cut other apps and Pages associated with the research project, according to Mike Clark, director of product management on Facebook's privacy team.
Researchers are part of a project called NYU Ad Observatory, which asks people to download a browser extension that collects data on what Facebook political ads the users see 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 to the company to spread lies through their advertisements. Facebook has eventually banned all new political ads in the week leading up to the 2020 U.S. Presidential election in an effort to stop misinformation.
Last October, Facebook sent a cease-and-desist letter to the researchers threatening to block Facebook political data and collecting targeting data. At the time, Laura Edelson, an undergraduate in Yale University's Tandon School of Engineering, told the Wall Street Journal that the group would stop publishing the more nuanced data herself.
Clark said Facebook offers targeting data sets for political ads and suggested that the NYU group use this information. According to Facebook's terms of service, a user can not 'access or collect data from our products using automated means or attempt to access data which you don't know about or 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 in which the company was punished for failing to police how data were collected by outside developers, Clark said. As part of a settlement with regulatory agencies, Facebook was fined a record $5 billion by Facebook.
Edelson, a Ph.D. candidate 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 a group's access to Facebook's data stream, the company is essentially ending NYU's effort to study Misinformation in political ads, she added.
Edelson is silencing us because our work often calls attention to problems in its platform, wrote Edelson in an emailed statement. 'Worst of all, Facebook is using user privacy, a common belief that we have always had as a pretext in our work. If this episode demonstrates anything, it's that Facebook should not have veto power over who is allowed to test them and why.
The NYU-led project started before the 2020 US presidential election to better study the thousands of political ads on the social networking website. Political ads on Facebook are found in a searchable database, including some demographic data about the gender and location of people who saw the ad. But the database is not related to how an advertisement was created, part of the information the Ad Observatory is trying to collect.
Facebook's political ad library is 'is expensive 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, the Ad Observatory researchers said on their website.
For instance, the ad Observatory revealed that Trevor Noah targeted a Georgia Democrat who was interested in topics like former president Barack Obama, comedian Jon Ossoff and Time magazine during his campaign for U.S. Senate.