A group of New York University researchers say they have been banned from Facebook for looking into political ad transparency and misinformation on the ubiquitous social network.
Members of the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, who call themselves Cybersecurity for Democracy (CFD) created Ad Observer, a browser plug-in that automatically scrapes data on what political ads users are being shown and why.
On its website, the group insists the plug-in does not collect personal information, like names, Facebook friends, or how users interacted with the ads.
Claiming their work was non-partisan, they say it’s ‘important to democracy to be able to check who is trying to influence the public and how.’
But in a blog post Tuesday, Facebook project management director Mike Clark said the personal accounts of three CFD members were suspended because the Ad Observer plug-in used ‘unauthorized means to access and collect data from Facebook, in violation of our terms of service’.
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NYU academics who created a plug-in that scraps info from Facebook users about political ads on their feed say the social media site has suspended their personal accounts. Ad Observer automatically scrapes data on what political ads users are being shown, who paid for them, how much, when they ran and why the user was targeted
‘Today, we disabled the accounts, apps, Pages and platform access associated with NYU’s Ad Observatory Project and its operators,’ Clark wrote in a post titled ‘Research cannot be the justification for compromising people’s privacy.’
CFD says the plug-in was developed to examine the origin, reach and cost of political ads on Facebook.
Using its search capabilities, site visitors can see ads commissioned by politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Jon Ossoff and Donald Trump, even if they never made it into their personal Facebook feed.
Once you choose to download the extension ‘it copies the ads you see on Facebook and YouTube, so anyone can see them in our public database,’ the CFD explained on its website.
Facebook acknowledged in blocked the accounts of at least three members of Cybersecurity for Democracy, a group of NYU engineering academics, because their Ad Observer plug-in violated its terms of service
The plug in scrapes the text of the ad, along with any images or links and the advertiser’s name, and provides information on when the ad was shown, how much it cost, and information Facebook provides about how and why it was targeted to the user.
Cybersecurity for Democracy member Laura Edelson (pictured) said she was one of the NYU researchers suspended from Facebook for launching a plug-in that scrapes accounts for political ads. She said the social media giant ‘is silencing us because our work often calls attention to problems on its platform’
‘If you want, you can enter basic demographic information about yourself in the tool to help improve our understanding of why advertisers targeted you. However, we’ll never ask for information that could identify you.’
In a tweet Tuesday evening, CFD’s Laura Edelson confirmed Facebook had suspended her personal account and ‘the accounts of several people associated with Cybersecurity for Democracy.’
‘This has the effect of cutting off our access to Facebook’s Ad Library data, as well as Crowdtangle,’ Edelson, a PhD engineering student at NYU, said.
‘Facebook has also effectively cut off access to more than two dozen other researchers and journalists who get access to Facebook data through our project, including our work measuring vaccine misinformation with the Virality Project and many other partners who rely on our data.’
In a May blog post, CFD argued that while Facebook does share some information on ad sources and has pledged to fight disinformation, it doesn’t offer full transparency or fact-check political ads.
Edelson said their project had uncovered ‘systemic flaws in the Facebook Ad Library, that identified misinformation in political ads, ‘including many sowing distrust in our election system.’
In a series of tweets, Edelson criticized Facebook for silencing their research. Worst of all, Facebook is using user privacy, a core belief that we have always put first in our work, as a pretext for doing this,”
Clark said the social media giant had tried ‘for months’ to work with NYU to provide the team ‘the precise access they’ve asked for in a privacy protected way.’
‘The researchers gathered data by creating a browser extension that was programmed to evade our detection systems and scrape data such as usernames, ads, links to user profiles and ‘Why am I seeing this ad?’ information, some of which is not publicly-viewable on Facebook,’ he said.
Claiming also claimed the extension collected data about Facebook users who didn’t install it and archived it offline.
Edelson countered the company ‘is silencing us because our work often calls attention to problems on its platform’.
‘Worst of all, Facebook is using user privacy, a core belief that we have always put first in our work, as a pretext for doing this,’ she said in a statement shared with Mail Online. ‘If this episode demonstrates anything it’s that Facebook should not have veto power over who is allowed to study them.’
CFA says it doesn’t gather personal information of people who download the Ad Observer extension, but Facebook claims the plug-in collects data about users who didn’t install it and archived it offline.
Facebook says its tried since summer 2020 to work with NYU and the members of Cybersecurity for Democracy. Pictured: A political ad for Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene that appears in the Ad Observatory database, with details on when it ran, who paid for it, and why the user was targeted
Clark says Facebook first told Edelson’s team the Ad Observer extension was in violation last summer, even before it launched.
‘In October, we sent them a formal letter notifying them of the violation of our Terms of Service and granted them 45 days to comply with our request to stop scraping data from our website.’
The deadline ended on November 30, well after Election Day, but Clark said Facebook kept trying to work with Edelson and her colleagues on privacy concerns ‘and offered them ways to obtain data that did not violate our terms.’
The company offered the three access to its US 2020 Elections ad targeting data, which it says is more comprehensive than their plug-in, ‘but they declined.’
‘While the Ad Observatory project may be well-intentioned, the ongoing and continued violations of protections against scraping cannot be ignored and should be remediated,’ Clark added..
‘Today’s action doesn’t change our commitment to providing more transparency around ads on Facebook or our ongoing collaborations with academia,’ he said.
‘We’ll continue to provide ways for responsible researchers to conduct studies that are in the public interest while protecting the security of our platform and the privacy of people who use it. ‘
An ad for Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff from the Ad Observor site
Cybersecurity for Democracy co-founder Damon McCoy, a professor of computer science and engineering at NYU, called Facebook’s ban ‘disgraceful.’
‘Facebook is attempting to squash legitimate research that is informing the public about disinformation on their platform,’ McCoy said in a statement shared with Mail Online.
‘With its platform awash in vaccine disinformation and partisan campaigns to manipulate the public, Facebook should be welcoming independent research, not shutting it down.’
In advance of the 2020 elections, Facebook launched an theoretically objective oversight board to mediate thorny questions about who should be allowed on the site and what they could share.
In response critics formed a rival organization, ‘The Real Facebook Oversight Board,’ (RFOB), of which Edelson, is a member.
In a statement on Wednesday, the RFOB claimed that, ‘Like the authoritarian governments they court, Facebook is cracking down on its critics.’
‘As Facebook expands its stranglehold on the academic community studying the impacts of digital technology and social media, this is sure to have a chilling effect on other academic institutions,’ it added. ‘We can’t allow it. The NYU Ad Observatory researchers are performing a critical service for democracy that must be protected.’
Insisting the information the Ad Observatory gathered was already public, the board called on the site to restore the members’ accounts immediately.
It’s not entirely clear who besides Edelson was banned: Facebook cited three members of Cybersecurity for Democracy, though the group’s website lists seven main members.
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment about whether the suspensions were temporary or permanent, or if the banned members had the option to appeal.