Facebook Bans Academics Who Investigated Political Ad Distribution

Facebook has banned the accounts of researchers investigating the spread of political ads on the platform. The company reports that the academics violated Facebook’s terms of use by scraping data.

Facebook states in a blog post that the academics have broken the rules of the platform with their research. The company has said it has stripped the “accounts, Facebook pages and platform access” from researchers participating in New York University’s Ad Observatory Project. That project uses a browser plug-in to investigate the spread of disinformation, because Facebook does not check whether political advertisements on the platform contain untruths.

Among other things, the academics tried to find out where such political advertisements come from and how they are targeted at users. Volunteers can install the plugin and it will automatically collect data about which political ads users see and why. In this way, the academics say they want to provide insight into how disinformation is spread on Facebook. The results of the research will be made public on the Ad Observatory Project website.

Facebook itself writes that the company has banned the researchers after “repeated efforts to bring NYU’s investigation into line with Facebook’s terms.” The company claims that the researchers violated the privacy of its users by scraping user data with the plugin. Facebook’s terms prohibit scraping data without permission. “The researchers have knowingly violated our terms against scraping, and we’ve gone to great lengths over the past year to explain that to them.”

The researchers collected data by creating a browser extension programmed to bypass 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 available on Facebook. ,” writes an employee of the company.

The researchers say they do not collect personal data from volunteers who install the browser plug-in, such as the usernames or friend lists of those users. The academics do collect data about the advertisers; presumably that is the scraped data that Facebook refers to in its statement.

One of the academics tells Bloomberg that the research group is dissatisfied with Facebook’s approach. “Facebook is silencing us because our work often draws attention to issues on its platform,” said Laura Edelson, a doctoral student involved in the NYU research. “Facebook uses user privacy, a core belief that we have always put at the forefront of our work, as a pretext for doing so.”

Facebook writes in its statement that it “takes the unauthorized scraping of data seriously.” “When we find cases of scraping, we investigate and take action to protect our platform. The Ad Observatory project may be well-intentioned, but the continued violations of our scraping protections cannot be ignored and must be addressed.” The company also states that it already offers researchers opportunities to conduct research on Facebook, and that it will continue to do so.