Researchers, NYU, Knight Institute Condemn Facebook’s Effort to Squelch Independent Research about Misinformation

Say Facebook is moving to silence independent research into Facebook’s practices regarding political advertising, the spread of COVID 19 misinformation, and efforts to conceal the promotion of violence on January 6

Link to press statement published August 4, 2021.

NEW YORK — After months of negotiations, late yesterday evening, Facebook abruptly shut down the accounts of New York University researchers Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy, blocking their research into political ads and the spread of misinformation on the platform. Two weeks before the 2020 presidential election, Facebook sent Edelson and McCoy a cease-and-desist letter, demanding that they discontinue use of the research tool they developed, called Ad Observer, and that they take down the results of their prior research. Facebook threatened to shut down their public interest research–a move that prompted public outcry in support of the project by researchers, journalism organizations, and civil society groups. The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and First Amendment specialists at Ballard Spahr are representing Edelson and McCoy in their personal capacities in this matter.

The following can be attributed to Laura Edelson, Ph.D. candidate in computer science at New York University Tandon School of Engineering and the lead researcher behind NYU Cybersecurity for Democracy, which operates Ad Observer, and Ad Observatory, a site for the public to explore trends in Facebook advertising:

Yesterday evening, Facebook suspended my Facebook account and the accounts of several people associated with Cybersecurity for Democracy, our team at NYU. This has the effect of cutting off our access to Facebook’s Ad Library data, as well as Crowdtangle. Over the last several years, we’ve used this access to uncover systemic flaws in the Facebook Ad Library, to identify misinformation in political ads, including many sowing distrust in our election system, and to study Facebook’s apparent amplification of partisan misinformation. By suspending our accounts, Facebook has tried to shut down all this work. Facebook has also effectively cut off access to more than two dozen other researchers and journalists who get access to Facebook data through our project, including our work measuring vaccine misinformation with the Virality Project and many other partners who rely on our data.

The work our team does to make data about disinformation on Facebook transparent is vital to a healthy internet and a healthy democracy. Facebook is silencing us because our work often calls attention to problems on its platform. Worst of all, Facebook is using user privacy, a core belief that we have always put first in our work, as a pretext for doing this. If this episode demonstrates anything it’s that Facebook should not have veto power over who is allowed to study them.

The following can be attributed to Damon McCoy, associate professor of computer science and engineering at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering:

It is disgraceful that Facebook is attempting to squash legitimate research that is informing the public about disinformation on their platform. With its platform awash in vaccine disinformation and partisan campaigns to manipulate the public, Facebook should be welcoming independent research, not shutting it down. Allowing Facebook to dictate who can investigate what is occurring on its platform is not in the public interest. Facebook should not be able to cynically invoke user privacy to shut down research that puts them in an unflattering light, particularly when the “users” Facebook is talking about are advertisers who have consented to making their ads public.

Edelson and McCoy’s research relies on Ad Observer, a browser plugin they and others created that allows consenting Facebook users to voluntarily share with the researchers limited and anonymous information about the political ads shown to them by the platform. The tool enables researchers and journalists to follow trends in Facebook political advertising in their states via a public-facing site, Adobservatory.org. Reporters from Wisconsin to Utah to Florida and more have used this resource to write stories about the election and its aftermath. (See reporting about the project and using Ad Observatory data here.)

Although Facebook made its demand to Edelson and McCoy in October of last year, it did not move to shut down the researchers’ Facebook accounts until yesterday, hours after Edelson had informed the platform that she and McCoy were studying the spread of disinformation about January 6 on the social media platform.

McCoy and Edelson run Cybersecurity for Democracy, a research-based, nonpartisan, and independent effort to expose online threats to our social fabric and to recommend how to counter them. It is part of the Center for Cybersecurity at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering.

The following can be attributed to Alex Abdo, litigation director at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University:

We can’t allow Facebook to decide what the public gets to know about Facebook. Independent research that respects user privacy is absolutely crucial right now. It’s essential to figuring out how disinformation spreads on the platform, how advertisers exploit Facebook’s micro-targeting tools, and how Facebook’s system of amplification may be pushing us further apart. This research should be celebrated and protected. It’s disappointing and truly disturbing that Facebook is trying to shut this kind of research down.

The following can be attributed to Seth Berlin, a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Ballard Spahr, which is serving as co-counsel to Damon McCoy and Laura Edelson:

As a pretext for preventing NYU’s researchers from exposing flaws on Facebook’s platform, the company is making the truly remarkable claim that political advertising is private. But the whole point of advertising is that it is intended to be public. For this research, Facebook users voluntarily donate their advertising information while remaining completely anonymous, and the researchers do not collect any private user information. Facebook’s primary justification for trying to shut down this important research simply doesn’t hold up.

For more information, contact: Lorraine Kenny, communications director, lorraine.kenny@knightcolumbia.org.

Cybersecurity for Democracy is a research-based effort to expose online threats to our social fabric — and recommend how to counter them. We are part of the Center for Cybersecurity at NYU.

Would you like more information on our work? Visit Cybersecurity for Democracy online and see how tools, data, investigations, and analysis are fueling efforts toward platform accountability. You can:

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