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Facebook Goes After Research Group Studying Its Ad Policies

The researchers received information from volunteers in order to study apparent violations of ad policies during the recent U.S. election

Facebook, one of the most ambitious companies in modern history—it is, after all, contemplating its own currency—is also trying to shut down an academic research group it doesn’t Like.

The Ad Observatory, a project of NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering, monitors ads on Facebook. In the most recent American election, they studied “Which candidates, super PACS, and dark money groups are spending most on Facebook advertising nationwide? What topics do they emphasize and what objectives do they seek to achieve with ads?”

The project asked volunteers to install a plugin, Ad Observer, that automatically scrapes ads presented on Facebook and sends them in. Why does it matter? Because most of us see only a small proportion of the ads that appear on Facebook, targeted to our apparent interests. If you never write about ghosts, you won’t see ads for seances. If you write a lot about cars, you will likely see ads for car care products.

Why does Facebook care if someone studies this stuff? Because, according to Cory Doctorow, a special adviser to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Facebook has been told by governments to exercise more discretion than it actually does:

For political dirty tricksters, Facebook’s self-serve ad platform is a juicy target: If you want to spread disinformation, the platform will help you narrow down the people who’ll see it. A canny political actor can use Facebook ads to show lies and vile incitements to people who might act on them, and, just as important, not show those ads to the rest of the world, which would reveal the way politicos talk when they think there’s nobody here but us chickens.

Facebook’s been fined over this, its execs raked over the coals in Congress and the British Parliament, and it says it has learned its lesson, putting in place measures that will prevent it.

Cory Doctorow, “Facebook Is Going After Its Critics in the Name of Privacy” at Wired (November 20, 2020)

But, he says, “Time and again, they’ve discovered gross failures in Facebook’s ability to enforce its own policies and live up to its promises.”

Facebook doesn’t welcome the outside inspection:

A Facebook official sent a letter to the Ad Observatory researchers October 16th, saying that “scraping tools, no matter how well-intentioned, are not a permissible means of collecting information from us.” The letter also threatened further enforcement action if the project did not shut down and delete the data it has collected, according to the WSJ. The company could change its own code to block the NYU team from collecting further data, a Facebook spokesperson told the WSJ.

The NYU group discovered this week that Facebook was not labeling all political ads to show who had paid for them as its own disclosure rules require, BuzzFeed News reported.

Kim Lyons, “Facebook wants the NYU Ad Observer to quit collecting data about its ad targeting” at The Verge (October 23, 2020)

According to Doctorow, Facebook is concerned that data from other users who saw the ads might also be scraped; however, Ad Observatory insists, however, that its software scrapes only the ads.

According to a science news release from the engineering school,

Transparency in political ads is vital to ensuring safe and fair elections, but transparency is difficult if advertisers are not required to disclose details about targeting and sources of funding. While TV broadcasters must disclose information about political ads to the public, Facebook, which is used by nearly 70% of Americans and is a source of news for many users, faces no such federal requirements.

NYU Tandon School of Engineering, “A new research tool, NYU Ad Observatory, tracks political advertising on Facebook” at Eurekalert (September 15, 2020)

That’s an advantage Facebook might fight to keep. The controversy leads back into the question of whether a social medium like Facebook is a publisher, a carrier (like the phone company) or something perhaps not yet defined. Social media are probably at their most powerful if they are enshrouded in a permanent state of ambiguity about such questions.

Of course, one solution is for more people to spend less time on Facebook and let the remaining participants fight it out among themselves.

You may also find of interest:

Facebook gets rich off what we tell our friends. Social media pioneer David Gelernter also has a proposal for sharing the wealth more fairly.

Facebook “likes” cryptocurrency. We asked Jonathan Bartlett, what the new coin, Libra, means for Facebook? For crypto?


Facebook’s secret censorship rules expose a key problem.

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Facebook Goes After Research Group Studying Its Ad Policies