Posted on August 6, 2021 at 2:02 PM
New York University (NYU) and Columbia University have issued a joint statement condemning Facebook for taking down independent research regarding misinformation by the social media platform. The research tacked various issues revolving around political advertising and the spread of COVID-19.
The statement notes that Facebook blocked the accounts of Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy, two New York University researchers linked with the study. The action halted the research that the two were conducting on political ads and how Facebook promotes misinformation.
Facebook and the two researchers have been entangled in an ongoing spat regarding the browser plugin known as “Ad Observer.” The parties have been involved in negotiations for several months.
Two months before the 2020 US presidential elections, the social media platform issued Edelson and McCoy a cease-and-desist order stating that they should halt using the research tool. Facebook also demanded that the two take down the results of the research.
However, when Facebook sent the order last year, it did not take any action to shut down the Facebook accounts of the two researchers. The shutdown happened after Edelson informed Facebook that together with McCoy, they would launch a study into the spread of misinformation on January 6 on the platform.
Facebook did not issue an official statement into the matter. However, Mike Clark, Facebook’s product management director, commented on the matter in a blog post, stating that the two were using unauthorized means to gather information against Facebook’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 blog post read.
Clark also noted that the two researchers turned down Facebook’s attempt to supply them with data related to political ads during the 2020 US presidential elections. During this period, Facebook has installed a similar tool to Ad Observer.
However, Edelson and McCoy’s lawyer, Seth Berlin, refuted claims that the tool collected private user information. Berlin also added that it was “remarkable” that the platform would call political advertising public.
Causes Public Outcry
The move by Facebook to shut down the accounts of the two researchers has caused a public outcry. Other researchers and civil society groups have come together to condemn Facebook for the action taken.
Edelson gave her statement on the matter, noting that besides her account, Facebook had also shut down the accounts of other individuals linked to Cybersecurity for Democracy.
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 stated.
She also added that by blocking her account, Facebook blocked other researchers and journalists who rely on the research for matters such as vaccine misinformation.
McCoy also issued her statement stating that Facebook’s action was an attempt to inhibit legitimate research was largely informed the public. He also added that instead of shutting down their research, Facebook should have welcomed it, as it was independent research.
“Allowing Facebook to dictate who can investigate what is occurring on its platform is not in the public interest. Facebook should not be able to cynically invoke user privacy to shut down research that puts them in an unflattering light, particularly when the “users” Facebook is talking about are advertisers who have consented to making their ads public,” McCoy stated.
Ad Observer is a browser plugin created by Edelson, McCoy and other researchers. The plugin is used voluntarily, as users can choose the information they want to share about Facebook’s political ads in an anonymous manner. Journalists can also use the tool to pick up trends during elections. Data metrics from the tool show that reporters have used it in Florida, Utah and Wisconsin to give detailed reports during and after elections.
Edelson and McCoy are the brains behind Cybersecurity for Democracy. This organization uses independent and non-partisan research to investigate the online threats of social platforms and develop solutions to these issues. The organization is linked to the Centre for Cybersecurity and the NYU school of engineering.