Face­book clears clues to Rus­sia’s in­flu­ence

Ad­ver­tis­ers no longer able to see met­rics for con­tent

Santa Fe New Mexican - - NATION & WORLD - By Craig Tim­berg and El­iz­a­beth Dwoskin

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.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.