Facebook banned researchers who pried into its ads and misinformation

Sure, go ahead and research us. But, um, you can only look at the data we've cherry-picked for you. Hope that's okay.

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After the 2020 Presidential Election, both Facebook and Twitter explicitly stated that they’d be open to having academics study their respective responses to the election. When questioned about how Facebook would use its experiences with the election to change its policies moving forward, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company would be “commissioning individual academics” to study the matter.

This week — not even a year later — Facebook proved those promises to be empty. The social network has suspended or banned the personal accounts of a group of researchers from New York University’s (NYU) Ad Observatory project who had been collecting data on ad transparency and misinformation on Facebook.

Facebook’s official stance is that it banned these accounts for violating the site’s Terms of Service.

“We took these actions to stop unauthorized scraping and protect people’s privacy in line with our privacy program under the FTC Order,” writes Mike Clark, Product Management Director, in a blog post. But the researchers didn’t collect any data on Facebook users — only on the many advertisers profiting off the platform’s strangely twisted policies.

Advertisers only — The NYU Ad Observatory program created a browser extension called Ad Observer, which allows user to send information about the ads they see to the group of researchers. Ad Observer essentially scrapes the data you see after you click the “Why am I seeing this ad?” prompt on Facebook. This information is conspicuously absent from Facebook’s public ad database.

Facebook’s hard stance is rooted in the assertion that Ad Observer is a violation of user privacy. Ad Observer doesn’t collect any identifiable user information at all, though — no names, no ID numbers, no friend list.

The extension only collected information on advertisers, which is technically already publicly available via that “Why am I seeing this ad?” clickthrough. So Facebook’s reasoning here is more than a little fraught.

Only on our terms — Facebook says it’s required to ban the researchers’ accounts to comply with new rules the FTC imposed after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. These rules are meant to protect users, though — not advertisers.

In its blog post, Facebook says it attempted to work with the NYU Ad Observer to provide officially sanctioned routes of research on its advertising platform. Which is, of course, exactly the problem. Facebook only wants to give researchers an inside peek if it can control exactly which pieces of data are up for viewing. Which, you know, defeats the entire purpose of conducting research at all.