Facebook Blacklists Academics Researching Ad Transparency

Mark Zuckerberg Facebook creepy smile

Social media giant Facebook has reportedly banned the accounts of a number of NYU academics that were researching ad transparency and misinformation on the platform.

The Verge reports that Facebook recently banned the personal accounts of a number of researchers from the NYU Ad Observatory who were investigating the spread of misinformation and ad transparency on the platform. Facebook claims that the academics violated the site’s terms of service by scraping user data without permission; the academics allege that Facebook is simply silencing them for exposing issues with Facebook’s platform.

In May, the researchers published a blog post explaining the aim of their studies — to uncover exactly who is funding political ads and how they are being targeted towards people online. As Facebook does not fact-check political ads, this research could have a great effect on the platform, and given that a huge amount of Facebook’s revenue comes from advertising this could cause major issues for the company.

One hundred cardboard cutouts of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg stand outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, April 10, 2018. – Advocacy group Avaaz is calling attention to what the groups says are hundreds of millions of fake accounts still spreading disinformation on Facebook. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

The researchers built a web browser plug-in called Ad Observer to aid in their research. The extension collects data from users on the types of political ads being served to them and why those ads have been targeted towards them in particular. According to the plug-in’s website, it does not collect personally identifying information such as a Facebook ID number, username, or friends list.

The data collected by the plug-in is made publicly available to researchers and journalists who analyze the information in an effort to identify trends and issues with Facebook as a platform. So far, it has been revealed from studying this information that Facebook has failed to disclose who pays for certain political ads, and how certain types of misinformation are more engaging than others.

Laura Edelson, a researcher at NYU that has been involved with the Ad Observatory project, found her personal account banned by Facebook and believes that the company did so in an effort to end independent scrutiny of its ad platform.

Edelson said in a statement emailed to Breitbart News: “Facebook is silencing us because our work often calls attention to problems on its platform. 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. If this episode demonstrates anything it is that Facebook should not have veto power over who is allowed to study them.”

Facebook alleges that the researchers were banned after they violated the site’s terms of service, and that the Ad Observer plug-in “collected data about Facebook users who did not install or consent to the collection.”

This would suggest that Facebook believes the researchers were collecting data about individual private Facebook users, but it would appear that is not the case. Facebook appears to be referring to “advertisers’ accounts, including the names and profile pictures of public Pages that run political ads and the contents of those ads,” according to Protocol.

Facebook further alleges that it warned the NYU researchers that they may be banned for their work and repeatedly offered to work alongside them, providing the data that they needed directly. In October 2020, Facebook stated: “Scraping tools, no matter how well-intentioned, are not a permissible means of collecting information from us.” The letter added that the researchers “may be subject to additional enforcement action” if they refuse to end the NYU study.

Read more at the Verge here.

Lucas Nolan is a reporter for Breitbart News covering issues of free speech and online censorship. Follow him on Twitter @LucasNolan or contact via secure email at the address lucasnolan@protonmail.com


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