It turns out Facebook’s apparent attempts to thwart investigations into its platform aren’t only harming ad blockers, researchers, and regulators, but users of its platform, too. That’s according to a new report in the Markup detailing how a recent tweak to Facebook’s News Feed meant to hamper researchers came with the unintended side effect of hampering people who use screen readers.
The Markup found that Facebook’s latest update appends a slew of unintelligible junk to the backend code of ads and sponsored posts that crop up across people’s News Feeds in-browser. Ostensibly, this bit of added gobbledygook would help these posts trickle past the same sort of ad-blockers that Facebook has been waging war on until now. On top of that, though, it also keeps these same paid-for posts out of the hands of researchers that are trying to audit the way ads might influence people’s behaviour on the platform at scale.
In the past, we’ve seen the company stall efforts like the NYU Ad Observatory or Propublica’s Political Facebook Ad Project that sought to collect information on the reach and targeting prowess of political ads in ways that the company often declines to address — or flat out misses — when talking to the public. A common way that these sorts of projects parse sponsored and non-sponsored posts is, according to the Markup, by using what’s known as an ARIA tag: a piece of backend HTML code that’s appended to all News Feed posts in order to make them readable by your average screen reader software. When read aloud, this is the code that differentiates whether a user with vision loss is looking at a post from their friend or looking at an ad.
The Markup reports that this is the code that Facebook garbled in its latest update — which means trouble for screen readers and the platform’s researchers alike. That said, the report notes that the update hasn’t been rolled out to all users yet. Just enough that researchers in the space, like Ad Observatory lead Laura Edelson, noticed a “sharp drop” in the data their tools were collecting. While they were able to find a fix, the same likely can’t be said about screen-reader software that people might be using.
The same also can’t be said about ad blocking software like uBlock Origin, which — as some loyal users have been quick to point out — has started leaking the errant ad on their Facebook newsfeed.
Last Saturday, Facebook made a change to their DOM that had the effect of breaking Ad Observer, as well as @themarkup's Citizen Browser, and most importantly, screen readers for the visually impaired. It only impacted us for a week, but screen readers can't be fixed as easily./1 pic.twitter.com/svN6B9BEIM
— Laura Edelson (@LauraEdelson2) September 21, 2021
In July of last year, a group of Facebook engineers published a blog post meant to show off a few of the efforts the company had undertaken to make its site more accessable to those using screen readers. Among the updates listed was a plugin meant to alert developers of potential ARIA violations whenever developers plugged new features into the platform — kind of a reminder that the potential addition might not be friendly to users with visual impairments.
It doesn’t seem like the update raised any red flags for developers. Nor has it seemed to raise red flags in the past, where we’ve seen Facebook reportedly leave its blind users unable to identify spon-con in their News Feed for years at a time. For the sake of this community, let’s hope Facebook’s willing to put its myriad beefs with ad-blocking users and ad-investigating researchers to the side.
We’ve reached out to Facebook about this report, and will update here when we hear back.