Com­pany says it fixed a ‘bug,’ but re­searchers say it’s hid­ing data on Rus­sian dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY CRAIG TIMBERG AND EL­IZ­A­BETH DWOSKIN craig.timberg@wash­post.com el­iz­a­beth.dwoskin@wash­post.com

took down data and thou­sands of posts, ob­scur­ing the reach of Rus­sian dis­in­for­ma­tion.

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 — 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 rich trove of in­for­ma­tion had dis­ap­peared — or at least moved some­where 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 says it has cor­rected a “bug” that al­lowed Al­bright, 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 been crushed on the so­cial-me­dia an­a­lyt­ics tool CrowdTan­gle, which Face­book bought last year.

“We iden­ti­fied and fixed a bug in CrowdTan­gle that al­lowed users to see cached in­for­ma­tion from in­ac­tive Face­book pages,” com­pany spokesman Andy Stone said. “Across all our plat­forms we have pri­vacy com­mit­ments to make in­ac­tive con­tent that is no longer avail­able, in­ac­ces­si­ble.”

What­ever the rea­son, re­searchers ex­pressed frus­tra­tion that cru­cial data and thou­sands of posts are gone.

Last week, two other re­searchers who had been work­ing with the Face­book data, Joan Dono­van and Becca Lewis of the non­profit Data and So­ci­ety In­sti­tute, also no­ticed that it had dis­ap­peared.

“When plat­forms do not re­lease data for re­searchers to an­a­lyze, they set them­selves up for draw­ing their own con­clu­sions based on their own in­ter­ests,” said Dono­van. “The bits and pieces of data we found in CrowdTan­gle are alarm­ing be­cause of who the Face­book pages tar­get — ev­ery­day peo­ple with sets of mu­tual con­cerns about the fu­ture of our so­ci­ety.”

Al­bright’s re­search be­gan when he tried to de­ter­mine how far the Rus­sian dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign reached dur­ing the cam­paign. He knew that Face­book had ac­knowl­edged that the com­pany had shut down 470 Rus­sian-con­trolled pages and ac­counts that had bought more than 3,000 ads, and that those ads had reached an es­ti­mated 10 mil­lion peo­ple. Face­book has de­clined to say how many peo­ple saw the free posts cre­ated by the Rus­sian ac­counts and pages.

That left open the ques­tion of what else those 470 ac­counts and pages had been do­ing. Six of them — Black­tivists, United Mus­lims of Amer­ica, Be­ing Pa­tri­otic, Heart of Texas, Se­cured Bor­ders and LGBT United — had be­come pub­licly known through news re­ports. So Al­bright de­cided to use CrowdTan­gle to an­swer his ques­tion.

The re­sults of his data down­load star­tled him. For those six pages alone, Al­bright found 19.1 mil­lion “in­ter­ac­tions,” a term de­scrib­ing how of­ten a Face­book user does some­thing con­crete with a post, such as shar­ing it, com­ment­ing on it, hit­ting the “like” but­ton or post­ing an emoji.

Al­bright also found that, ac­cord­ing to CrowdTan­gle, this same con­tent had been “shared” 340 mil­lion times. That meant that the dis­in­for­ma­tion could have po­ten­tially reached the feeds of users that many times, but it didn’t re­veal how many users had read or seen it.

But given that Al­bright was work­ing with just six pages out of 470, it was clear to him that the Rus­sian cam­paign reached far beyond the 10 mil­lion peo­ple Face­book had ac­knowl­edged saw the ads alone.

Fi­nally, for each of the six pages, Al­bright down­loaded 500 posts — the most avail­able through CrowdTan­gle — and pub­lished them on­line in a vis­ual for­mat Oct. 5. That work soon be­came the ba­sis for a Wash­ing­ton Post ar­ti­cle on Al­bright’s dis­cov­er­ies and a later story in the New York Times. Al­bright also talked about his re­search on CBS and Fox.

But even as the dis­cus­sion over Al­bright’s re­search be­gan heat­ing up, he dis­cov­ered that the 3,000 Face­book posts were gone, as was the data on CrowdTan­gle.

“There was noth­ing,” he said. “It was wiped.”

The dele­tion of the posts and the re­lated data struck Al­bright as a ma­jor loss for un­der­stand­ing the Rus­sian cam­paign. He still has the data and the posts for the six pages he ex­am­ined, but as oth­ers be­come pub­lic, there will be no way for in­de­pen­dent re­searchers to con­duct a sim­i­lar ex­am­i­na­tion of any of the other 470 pages and ac­counts — or any oth­ers linked to Rus­sia that may emerge over sub­se­quent weeks or months.

The dis­com­fort is shared even by a critic of Al­bright’s work, Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity pro­fes­sor David Karpf, who has ar­gued that the CrowdTan­gle data 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. “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.”


Sh­eryl Sand­berg, chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of Face­book, walks to a meet­ing with mem­bers of the Con­gres­sional Black Cau­cus at the Capi­tol.

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