Facebook Threatens to Muzzle an NYU Research Project Into Its Political Ad Targeting

Facebook Threatens to Muzzle an NYU Research Project Into Its Political Ad Targeting
Photo: Loic Venance, Getty Images

Facebook’s trying to muzzle a group of academic researchers working to shine a light on the company’s notoriously opaque political-ad targeting practices. It’s threatened the team with “enforcement action” if they don’t pull the plug on the project and wipe all data gathered so far, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

Researchers with New York University’s engineering school launched the NYU Ad Observatory project in September, an initiative that uses a custom-built browser to gather data from more than 6,500 volunteers on what kind of political ads Facebook shows them. Facebook contends that this violates its terms of service banning automated data collection. Per the Journal, Facebook’s director of privacy and data policy Allison Hendrix sent a letter on Oct. 16 warning the researchers that they “may be subject to additional enforcement action” if the university doesn’t shut down the project immediately and delete any data it has collected.

“Scraping tools, no matter how well-intentioned, are not a permissible means of collecting information from us,” she wrote.

Company spokesman Joe Osborne said in a statement to the Journal that the university received a warning months ago that its project would violate Facebook’s policies. He added that if the team didn’t voluntarily shutter its research, Facebook could prevent them from collecting any more data by tweaking the platform’s coding. After the report went live, Facebook sent a statement to the outlet saying that it “wouldn’t take any action on the NYU project’s data collection until well after the election.”

The project, which has cataloged targeting data for more than 200,000 ads so far, aims to establish an online repository for journalists, researchers, and policymakers to search political ads by state and learn what messages that advertisers are trying to push to which demographics. Following the outrage over Facebook’s botched handling of political advertising and user data in the 2016 presidential election, the company increased transparency around its ad process, though critics say it still has far to go. Facebook made available an archive of advertisements shown on the platform and included data about who sponsored the ad, where it ran, and the geographic location of users who saw it. But the archive’s noticeable lack of information about its ad-targeting practices means there’s still a huge knowledge gap regarding how Facebook determines which users see the ads in the first place.

Laura Edelson, a researcher who helps oversee the Ad Observatory project, told the Journal that the team has zero plans to halt its research. “The only thing that would prompt us to stop doing this would be if Facebook would do it themselves, which we have called on them to do,” she said.

And it’s far from the first time Facebook’s been fiercely defensive over its walled garden. Jessica González, co-founder of the civil rights coalition Change the Terms, said in December that she’d interviewed many data scientists eager to get a peek under Facebook’s hood; in particular, at the ways in which the platform programmatically surfaces certain types of content over others. But Facebook has remained averse, she said, to giving qualified researchers the level of access they’d need for any meaningful analysis.

Lack of transparency is one of the top complaints of civil rights leaders who’ve personally engaged with Facebook’s senior-most staff, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who in November hosted Change the Terms’ members for a private dinner at his Palo Alto home. “They’re building systems and tools, AI tools, that are intended on dealing with misinformation, dealing with hate, but where is the transparency around how those systems actually work?” Rashad Robinson, one of the civil rights leaders invited, told Gizmodo at the time.

Robinson’s organisation, Colour of Change, was formerly the target of a smear campaign carried out by a public relations firm funded by Facebook, as the New York Times first reported.

Policymakers have similarly denounced the company’s lack of transparency. Senator Amy Klobuchar, who’s currently sponsoring a bill that would force online platforms to open up about how they handle political advertising, said in a statement to the Journal that Facebook’s threat to crack down on NYU’s research “is further evidence that voluntary standards are insufficient.”

“It’s unacceptable that in the middle of an election, Facebook is making it harder for Americans to get information about online political ads,” she said.

[The Wall Street Journal]