Facebook bans academics who researched ad transparency and misinformation on Facebook

Facebook banned academics from accessing their personal accounts to research ad transparency on the social media network and spread of misinformation. Facebook claims that the group scraped user data without permission, in violation of its terms of service. However, academics claim they are being silenced because they exposed problems on Facebook's platform.They were part of NYU Ad Observatory which was created to study the spread and origin of political ads on Facebook. In a May blog post, the group stated that their goal was to discover who is paying for political ads and what they are targeting. This work is important for understanding disinformation spread on Facebook as the company doesn't fact-check them.The researchers developed Ad Observer, a browser plug in that automatically collects data about which political ads users are seeing and why they are targeted to them. As per its website, the plug-in does not collect any personally-identifying information, including users name, Facebook ID number, or friend list.New insights were provided by NYU's research into Facebook's problemsAd Observer makes data available to journalists and researchers who can use it to uncover trends and problems on the Facebook platform. This work has led to stories such as Facebook's refusal to reveal who paid for certain political ads and the fact that far-right misinformation is much more engaging than misinformation from left or center sources.Facebook provides some of this information through its Ad Library. However, not all. It doesn't share information about the targeting of ads based on user interests, for example. This data was collected by NYU. People can click on the ads shown to them and find out more. Facebook does offer information about ad targeting via a special program called FORT. However, this data is controlled by Facebook and filter.Laura Edelson, a NYU researcher who was involved in the project and whose Facebook account was blocked by the company, stated that the company wanted to end independent scrutiny.Facebook effectively ended this work by suspending our accounts. Facebook also effectively closed access to over two dozen journalists and researchers who have access to Facebook data via our project, 3/4 Laura Edelson (@LauraEdelson2) August 4, 2020Edelson stated in an email that Facebook is censoring us because our work often draws attention to issues on its platform. Worst, Facebook is using user privacy as a pretext to do this, which is a core belief we have always placed first in our work. This episode shows that Facebook shouldn't have the power to decide who can study them.Facebook claims it has banned researchers from collecting data on users because they were violating social networks terms and conditions. The Ad Observer plug in collected data about Facebook users without their consent. However, Protocol reported that Facebook was referring to advertisers accounts. This includes the profile photos of Pages that run political ads as well as the content of those ads.Facebook has every reason to be cautious about third-parties collecting information from its site. The Cambridge Analytica scandal resulted only from the lack of proper oversight by Facebook over how data could be scraped from its platform. The company was fined $5 billion and the FTC instituted new privacy controls.Facebook claims it is required to ban NYC researchers from its platform under these FTC guidelines. Privacy experts disagree with this. Jonathan Mayer, a Princeton University professor who studies technology and law, stated on Twitter that Facebook's legal argument was bogus.Facebook claims it has offered to collaborate with NYU researchers, providing data directly. It also warned them that they could be banned from Facebook last year.