Facebook clears clues to Russia’s influence
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Social media analyst Jonathan Albright got a call from Facebook the day after he published research last week showing that the reach of the Russian disinformation campaign was almost certainly larger than the company had disclosed. While the company had said 10 million people read Russian-bought ads, Albright had data suggesting that the audience was at least double that — and maybe much more — if ordinary free Facebook posts were measured as well.
Albright welcomed the chat with three company officials. But he was not pleased to discover that they had done more than talk about their concerns regarding his research. They also had scrubbed from the internet nearly everything — thousands of Facebook posts and the related data — that had made the work possible.
Never again would he or any other researcher be able to run the kind of analysis he had done just days earlier.
“This is public interest data,” Albright said Wednesday, expressing frustration that such a trove of information had disappeared — or at least moved where the public can’t see it. “This data allowed us to at least reconstruct some of the pieces of the puzzle. Not everything, but it allowed us to make sense of some of this thing.”
Facebook does not dispute it removed the posts, but it offers a different explanation of what happened. The company says it has merely corrected a “bug” that allowed Albright, who is research director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, to access information he never should have been able to find in the first place. That bug, Facebook says, has now been squashed on a social media analytics tool called CrowdTangle, which Facebook bought last year.
CrowdTangle enables advertisers to view metrics about the performance of their Facebook and Instagram campaigns, such as how many times a post was liked, commented, or shared. Until this week, advertisers were able to see metrics for content that had already been taken down on Facebook and Instagram.
“We identified and fixed a bug in CrowdTangle that allowed users to see cached information from inactive Facebook Pages,” said spokesman Andy Stone.
Whatever the reason, researchers expressed frustration that crucial data and thousands of posts are now gone.
“This makes it impossible for people outside the social media to piece together the backstory on any of this,” said Clinton Watts, a fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a former FBI agent, when told of Facebook’s actions.
Watts, who has studied Russian disinformation for years, said it’s reasonable for social media companies to want to delete false or misleading material on their platforms, but the consequences in this instance could undermine public understanding of what happened during the 2016 presidential campaign.
“All of that data from social media companies has to come together,” he said. “Operating in silos will never give us a full understanding of what went down.”
Every bit of data that gets deleted makes it harder to study how content flowed back and forth across platforms, including Twitter, Google, Instagram, Pinterest and more, several researchers said.
The discomfort is shared even by a critic of Albright’s work, George Washington University professor David Karpf, who published a piece in The Post’s Monkey Cage blog Thursday arguing that claims about the reach of the free Facebook’s posts were overblown. The CrowdTangle data, Karpf argued, is a weak proxy for the most important questions about how many American voters saw the content and how it affected their political choices.
Yet even so, Karpf was unhappy to learn of Facebook’s removal of the posts given the public debate underway.
“Any time you lose data,” he said, “I don’t like it, especially when you lose data and you’re right in the middle of public scrutiny.”