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Facebook bans researchers who were investigating Facebook ads

The researchers say Facebook’s decision has ‘effectively ended’ the work they were doing.


Andrew Wyrich


Facebook has banned a group of academics from New York University who researched political ads and misinformation on the platform.

The social media giant announced in a blog post on Wednesday that it had banned the accounts, apps, and pages related to the NYU Ad Observatory, a project by Cybersecurity of Democracy. The ban is the latest in a long-running feud Facebook has had with the academics.

To aid in their research, the group created a browser plug-in called Ad Observer, which collects data on the political ads users see and why they were targeted for the ad.

Specifically, the tool collects the advertiser’s name, the ad’s content, information Facebook provided about how the ad was targeted, and when the ad was shown to a user, among other things. It doesn’t collect personal information. The data collected by Ad Observer is then made public.

In October of last year, Facebook said the NYU Ad Observatory’s project violated their terms of service, as the Wall Street Journal reported at the time. On Wednesday, the social media giant reiterated that in its blog post explaining their reasoning for the ban.

“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,” Mike Clark, the company’s product management director, wrote in the post. Clark also said the browser extension collected information about Facebook users “who did not install it or consent to the collection.”

However, as Protocol noted in March, the information collected from accounts that did not “consent to the collection” that Clark appears to be referring to was actually advertisers’ accounts, not private users.

Laura Edelson, a member of Cybersecurity for Democracy, told Protocol that Facebook was “silencing us because our work often calls attention to problems on its platform.” The Daily Dot reached out to Cybersecurity for Democracy for comment, but didn’t immediately hear back.

However, in a series of tweets, Edelson elaborated more on the social media giant’s decision.

“This evening, Facebook suspended my Facebook account and the accounts of several people associated with Cybersecurity for Democracy, our team at NYU. This has the effect of cutting off our access to Facebook’s Ad Library data, as well as Crowdtangle,” Edelson wrote. “Over the last several years, we’ve used this access to uncover systemic flaws in the Facebook Ad Library, identify misinformation in political ads including many sowing distrust in our election system, and to study Facebook’s apparent amplification of partisan misinformation.”

Edelson continued: “By suspending our accounts, Facebook has effectively ended all this work. 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. The work our team does to make data about disinformation on Facebook transparent is vital to a healthy internet and a healthy democracy.”

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