Facebook sparks outrage by shutting down NYU misinformation study

Professors and lawyers condemned Facebook's decision to end a university investigation into political ads and misinformation.
Written by Jonathan Greig, Contributor

Facebook faces significant backlash from lawyers and professors at two New York universities after the platform shut down a study being done on political ads and the spread of misinformation. 

New York University (NYU) and Columbia University released a statement on Wednesday condemning the decision by Facebook, which decided to shut down the accounts of New York University researchers Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy Tuesday evening.

In the statement, Edelson said they had been negotiating with Facebook for months over a research tool called Ad Observer. The tool is part of the work of NYU Cybersecurity for Democracy, where Edelson is the lead researcher and a PhD candidate in computer science at New York University Tandon School of Engineering.

Ad Observer is a browser plugin that gave Facebook users the chance to share "limited and anonymous information" about the political ads they see on a daily basis. The tool also allows researchers and reporters to look through political advertising trends on Facebook in their states.

"Yesterday evening, Facebook suspended my Facebook account and the accounts of several people associated with Cybersecurity for Democracy, our team at NYU. This has the effect of cutting off our access to Facebook's Ad Library data, as well as Crowdtangle," Edelson said.

"Over the last several years, we've used this access to uncover systemic flaws in the Facebook Ad Library, to identify misinformation in political ads, including many sowing distrust in our election system, and to study Facebook's apparent amplification of partisan misinformation. By suspending our accounts, Facebook has tried to shut down all this work." 

Edelson added that Facebook had effectively cut off access to more than two dozen other researchers and journalists who get access to Facebook data through our project, including work measuring vaccine misinformation with the Virality Project and other partners.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment. Still, Facebook product management director Mike Clark released a blog post accusing the university of studying political ads "using unauthorized means to access and collect data from Facebook" that violated the website's Terms of Service. 

"We took these actions to stop unauthorized scraping and protect people's privacy in line with our privacy program under the FTC Order. The researchers gathered data by creating a browser extension that was programmed to evade our detection systems and scrape data such as usernames, ads, links to user profiles and 'Why am I seeing this ad?' information, some of which is not publicly viewable on Facebook," Clark said. 

"The extension also collected data about Facebook users who did not install it or consent to the collection. The researchers had previously archived this information in a now offline, publicly-available database."

Clark corroborated what NYU said, writing that the two sides had been negotiating since Facebook sent both Edelson and McCoy a cease-and-desist letter last fall demanding they stop using the tool. Facebook wanted the two to take down all of their previous research as well. 

Clark said they told NYU the tool was against their Terms of Service before deploying it in the summer of 2020. He compared the research project to "scraping," a widespread problem many social media sites now face from cybercriminals and political actors who abuse privileges to steal troves of data from sites like LinkedIn and Facebook

In April, information belonging to 553 million Facebook users was posted online following a scraping incident.

The researchers also turned down an attempt by Facebook to give them data collected by the social media platform itself on political ad targeting data from the 2020 US election. Facebook has set up internal programs similar to Ad Observer. 

"We made it clear in a series of posts earlier this year that we take unauthorized data scraping seriously, and when we find instances of scraping, we investigate and take action to protect our platform," Clark said, arguing further that the violations of privacy outweighed the research's value.  

"While the Ad Observatory project may be well-intentioned, the ongoing and continued violations of protections against scraping cannot be ignored and should be remediated."

Edelson said the work they were doing to "make data about disinformation on Facebook transparent" was "vital to a healthy internet and a healthy democracy."

She added that Facebook is "silencing" the two because they were calling attention to the platform's issues dealing with misinformation in political ads, which has become a sensitive topic for the social media giant. 

"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," Edelson said. "If this episode demonstrates anything, it's that Facebook should not have veto power over who is allowed to study them."

McCoy pointed out that Facebook made this decision right as it is facing widespread backlash from the US government for spreading COVID-19 vaccine disinformation. Last month, President Joe Biden made waves when he said Facebook was "killing people" through COVID-19 misinformation. 

McCoy also criticized Facebook for citing privacy violations considering advertisers "consented to making their ads public."

The two noted that reporters across the country used the tool to write about the 2020 election and that Facebook waited months to shut down their accounts. Hours before their accounts were shut down; they told Facebook they were "studying the spread of disinformation about January 6 on the social media platform."

The researchers' lawyer, Seth Berlin, called it "remarkable" that Facebook would argue political advertising is private considering its purpose and disputed the platform's claims that the Ad Observer team collect private user information. 

"Facebook's primary justification for trying to shut down this important research simply doesn't hold up," Berlin said. 

Editorial standards