Facebook Killed Research Into Capitol Riot to Protect Itself'Not Users

The Federal Trade Commission fined Facebook $5B for misleading its users about privacy. It celebrated the record-breaking fine as history-making.AdvertisementFacebook's Tuesday night crackdown against research into dangerous falsehoods propagated by its platform was based on the false belief that the FTC had forced it to act. It stated that we took these actions in order to stop unauthorized scraping and protect people's privacy, as per our privacy program under FTC Order. Federal lawmakers condemned the statement, accusing the company of trying to hide its involvement in fraud and abuse that had a negative impact on the country.Facebook was not shy about explaining its motivations, even though it offered a series of lies and omissions. It claimed that the action was to block research at New York University on its platform. This work was intended to improve knowledge production on a range societal harms. These included the attraction of violent belief systems and the weaponization election disinformation. Conspiratorial attitudes that undermine the public's faith in valid medical science.The Knight Institute is a First Amendment nonprofit located at Columbia University. They believe Facebook's motives were even more sinister. Although Facebook had decried the NYU researchers and their methods ten years ago, their work was allowed until Tuesdayhours after they learned that researchers had expanded their project to include Facebooks role in the Capitol rebellion on January 6.Facebook's letter to the FTC putting suspensions on its promises did not mention the unpleasant nature of this research. The research it was trying to suppress was about social medias role as spreading hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and undermining public health officials efforts in reining in the novel coronavirus. It has, in just a quarter of its time, racked-up a death toll comparable to that of the American Civil War.Facebook tried to make the researchers look bad by accusing them of violating the privacy rights of its users. This is not true at all.These are the actions taken by a company with something to hide...AdvertisementFirefox and Chrome extensions created by NYU. Users install them so researchers can view any ads Facebook inserts into their feeds. Facebook deliberately omits to state that the extension catalogs only advertisements. NYU does not collect the names of those who use the tool. Facebook's goal seems clear, despite not mentioning it. It wants to portray the NYU team as well as Cambridge Analytica in the exact same light and to suspend them for their next breach. Facebook is not promoting information, it is simply defending itself against public scrutiny by not following its own guidelines.The tool, Ad Observer, was said to have been created to evade detection systems. This sounds like researchers didn't issue a press release announcing the launch of the tool or posting the code online for review by the company.AdvertisementIt seems that the only thing Facebook is complaining is that NYU doesn't give it the ability track who uses Ad Observer. Inquisitive people might wonder if Facebook would even consider doing that. The obvious answer is to take control of the experiment. Facebook will be able to determine which accounts are contributing to NYU's research and can then manipulate the results at its discretion. All ads that are relevant to the work, including those related to politics, vaccines, or the Capitol Riot, could be manually reviewed before posting or removed from the feeds.According to the company, it provided NYU with an alternative dataset for its research. Through a series of omissionsimplies, the only difference between their data and NYU's is that its data is more privacy friendly. It doesn't mention that the data only covers the 3-month period up to 2020. The NYUs team widened the scope of their project to include disinformation about covid-19 vaccine. However, Facebook data ends a month before approval for the first vaccine. It is therefore mostly ineffective today. This is not mentioned in any of the Facebook statements.AdvertisementFacebook also removed most ads that were related to politics or social issues from its database. Advertisements that received less than 100 impressions aren't included. This is an arbitrary figure Facebook claims is a privacy protection measure. Advertisers with 101 impressions don't need privacy. These low-dollar ads are in fact the meat and potatoes NYU's research. It isn't just focused on large political campaigns. There are smaller campaigns that sometimes paid less than $100 to misinform select voters via Facebooks microtargeting platform.These omissions, while small, are not surprising and should be expected from a company that wants to present itself in its best light. These excuses make less sense the more they pile up. NYU was provided with screenshots from their Facebook accounts by its users. All except advertisements were removed. This is not an invasion on privacy. NYU was the only one to counter Facebook's offer. It had to grant it exclusive authority to limit and control data that underlies its research.AdvertisementThese are the actions taken by a company that has clearly something to hide about how harmful misinformation and disinformation are spreading on its platform. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce. This committee has broad authority over matters related to public health.Jan Schakowsky (chair of the consumer protection panel of the committee) stated that Facebook wanted to create fear among its critics and to chill academic research that could undermine [its] bottom line. Schakowsky's spokesperson said that Facebook's reason for suspending the suspension was that it was required by the FTC settlement.AdvertisementWe don't accept this interpretation. The aide explained that Facebook had reacted to another scraping incident earlier in the year. This was referring to Facebooks decision to not tell users if their data was stolen. They claimed they did not have any responsibility to inform the tens or millions of people whose personal information was scraped that it may have been compromised.Samuel Levine, the FTC's acting director, stated on Thursday that he was disappointed by Facebook's falsely blaming privacy settlements it had reached with the company. He wrote that the FTC supports transparency efforts, particularly around surveillance-based ads, to expose opaque business practices.AdvertisementLevine thanked Facebook for correcting the record. It has not done so since. The original FTC post that Levine blamed has not been updated. The letter was posted by Facebook's Twitter account. They have not provided any clarification. It seems that Levine refers to a statement published Wednesday morning by Wired.A spokesperson for Facebook Joe Osborne said that Facebook did not have to suspend accounts of researchers under the consent decree. He says that Section 7 of the consent decree requires Facebook's implementation of a comprehensive privacy program to protect the integrity, confidentiality, privacy, and privacy of users data.AdvertisementFacebook has, in other words acknowledged that it was not compelled to act. Instead, Facebook decided to stop the Capitol riot after learning that researchers were looking for evidence. Two years ago, Facebook was punished by FTC for deceiving its users about privacy. This deception was repeated by using the privacy of its users as a scapegoat.Levine wrote that Facebook's chief counsel had made a commitment to the FTC to communicate with them promptly and transparently about any important developments. However, no one from the commission has received even a single phone call regarding this crackdown on research. He confirmed that the FTC would not take any action. Levine said that he hoped the company was not using privacy or the agreement with the FTC as a pretext for other purposes.AdvertisementFacebook's timing and the misleading excuses it offered, topped by the fact that researchers are still suspended despite FTC approval in writing, make it clear that this is exactly what happened. Worse, Facebook has plenty of latitude to interpret its privacy rules so that they best serve its purpose and not its users.AdvertisementOn Friday, more than 100 academics, technologists, and researchers signed a letter denouncing the company for trying to silence a critical watchdog of a powerful corporation.The Ad Observatory allows researchers to conduct critical research to assess whether Facebook is keeping its transparency promises. Researchers can verify that Facebook's Ad Library publishes all ads on its platform. The Ad Observatory collects additional information that is not available in Facebook's Library. This includes information about why specific users are targeted by ads. This information is crucial for understanding possible manipulation and the wider civic effects of advertising, especially political advertising.AdvertisementIt concludes that Facebook's actions against NYU are part of a long-standing pattern of large technology companies, all of which have systematically undermined accountability, independent research, and public-interest research.