Facebook has suspended the accounts of New York University researchers who had been critical of the tech giant, effectively cutting off their research into the political ads and the spread of misinformation on the platform.
Facebook said the decision was made because of issues the researchers posed over privacy protection — but the researchers, Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy, slammed the social media platform and said the move is an attempt to silence them and other researchers who use the tool they developed to assess the spread of disinformation.
“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,” Edelson said in a statement. “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 suspension followed months of battling between the tech giant and the researchers over the Ad Observer tool the researchers developed. The tool allows Facebook users to voluntarily share limited anonymous information about the political ads shown to them by the platform and allows researchers and journalists to follow trends in Facebook political advertising.
Two weeks before the 2020 presidential election, Facebook sent the researchers a cease-and-desist letter demanding they discontinue the tool and take down the results of their prior research.
But Facebook did not act on its demand or move to shut down the researchers’ accounts until Tuesday, just hours after Edelson told the platform that she and McCoy were studying the spread of information about Jan. 6 on the platform, according to the Knight First Amendment Institute which is representing the researchers in this matter.
“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,” McCoy said in a statement.
Facebook’s product management director, Mike Clark, explained the decision to suspend the accounts in a blog post published Tuesday. Clark said the Ad Observatory tool used “unauthorized means to access and collect data” from Facebook in violation of the platform’s terms of services.
“While the Ad Observatory project may be well-intentioned, the ongoing and continued violations of protections against scraping cannot be ignored and should be remediated,” Clark wrote.
Facebook’s decision to effectively cut off the research tool comes as lawmakers ramp up scrutiny over the platforms’ handling of misinformation.
Facebook has defended its policies put in place to combat false information about COVID-19, the election and other matters, but Democrats in Congress and the Biden administration have been pressing the platform to take further action.