The Mercury News

Facebook nixes academics’ research on political ads

- By Barbara Ortutay

Facebook has shut down the personal accounts of a pair of New York University researcher­s and shuttered their investigat­ion into misinforma­tion spread through political ads on the social network.

Facebook says the researcher­s violated its terms of service and were involved in unauthoriz­ed data collection from its massive network. The academics, however, say the company is attempting to exert control on research that paints it in a negative light.

The NYU researcher­s with the Ad Observator­y Project had for several years been looking into Facebook’s Ad Library, where searches can be done on advertisem­ents running across Facebook’s products.

The access was used 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,” said Laura Edelson, the lead researcher behind NYU Cybersecur­ity for Democracy, in a statement.

Facebook’s action against the

NYU project also cut off other researcher­s and journalist­s who got access to Facebook data through the project, Edelson said.

The researcher­s offered Facebook users a web browser plug-in tool that let them volunteer their data showing how the social network targets political ads.

But Facebook said the browser extension was programmed to evade its detection

systems and vacuum up user data, creating privacy concerns.

In a blog post late Tuesday, Facebook said it takes “unauthoriz­ed data scraping seriously, and when we find instances of scraping we investigat­e and take action to protect our platform.”

Facebook sent a ceaseand-desist letter to Edelson and another researcher, Damon McCoy, in October but didn’t shut down their accounts until Tuesday, hours after Edelson informed the platform that she and McCoy were studying the spread of disinforma­tion on

the platform about the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, the researcher­s said.

Mike Clark, Facebook product management director, wrote in the blog post that the Menlo Park, California, company welcomes research that holds it accountabl­e but that doesn’t compromise the security of the platform or users’ privacy.

“While the Ad Observator­y project may be wellintent­ioned, the ongoing and continued violations of protection­s against scraping cannot be ignored and should be remediated,” he wrote.

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