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