Who has Facebook upset this week? Anyone keen to understand the disinformation problem on the company’s platforms.
As NPR reported:
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.
Protocol has a good overview
of what both sides here say about whether any data is being abused, but it’s worth noting that Facebook at first claimed it made the move “to stop unauthorized scraping and protect people’s privacy” in accordance with its agreement with the FTC following its $5bn fine for mishandling user data in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The company later rowed that back, saying the NYU project didn’t
violate the FTC agreement.
The confused messaging succeeded in both annoying the FTC
and making Facebook’s defence for blocking the researchers look pretty shaky.
In the end, while Facebook claims
it worked with NYU for months to find a way to make the research compliant with its rules, it’s just not a great look to block good-faith, opt-in research into Facebook’s effect on society. As activist David Carroll writes
The Ad Observer browser extension is a paragon of user integrity, privacy-protecting research techniques, and fills a significant gap in the limited ad library tools supplied by Facebook for civil society’s use. Engineers at Mozilla that reviewed the open source code concur
From a PR point of view, Facebook may wish to be the only source of data about its own platform. But given its power to influence society, Facebook should be open to sharing data for academic research, with an eye to improving its processes and being a more positive force in the world. And if it doesn’t do that by choice, it could eventually be forced by hostile politicians.