Senator Mark Warner slams Facebook for shutting accounts of political ad researchers

Published : August 05, 2021 19:56 IST

Facebook has come under intense scrutiny in recent years and it could be in for more. - Metik Atkas

Senator Mark Warner is pushing on Congress to "bring greater transparency to the shadowy world of online advertising." Facebook said it was protecting privacy by closing accounts that study political ads.

A U.S. Senator on Wednesday said it was "deeply concerning" that Facebook had disabled the accounts of New York University researchers studying political ads on the social media platform. Senator Mark R. Warner, chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, said it was "time for Congress to act to bring greater transparency to the shadowy world of online advertising."

Facebook responded that the NYU Ad Observatory project had ignored its "privacy concerns" while working to uncover political ad malpractice. Laura Edelson of NYU tweeted on Tuesday that "by suspending our accounts, Facebook has effectively ended all this work," which saw her team reveal cases of fake news spreading on Facebook.

"Facebook has tried to shut down all this work," Edelson said. "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."

What did the Senator say?

"This latest action by Facebook to cut off an outside group's transparency efforts is deeply concerning," Warner said. Warner explained that the work of the NYU Ad Observatory had "repeatedly facilitated revelations of ads violating Facebook's Terms of Service, ads for frauds and predatory financial schemes, and political ads that were improperly omitted from Facebook's lackluster Ad Library."

The Democratic senator for Virginia said he wants social media platforms to "better empower independent researchers" to "improve the integrity and safety of social media platforms by exposing harmful and exploitative activity.

"Instead, Facebook has seemingly done the opposite," he said. Warner said Congress needed to look deeper into the practices of Facebook and other social media companies to prevent "fraud and misconduct."

How did Facebook justify its actions?

A Facebook spokesman said: "We repeatedly explained our privacy concerns to NYU, but their researchers ultimately chose not to address them and instead resumed scraping people's data and ads from our platform."

Facebook sent the NYU Observatory project a cease-and-desist letter last year. The NYU project asks users to download a browser extension that records how Facebook shows them political ads while they use the platform. Facebook had claimed to have increased transparency with a new ad library and searchable online database of political programs.

Researchers were not impressed, saying the library is tough to use and leaves out some of the ads.

How did Facebook critics respond?

Critics of Facebook have also said the social media giant needs to be more transparent. "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," said Alex Abdo of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. "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."

Matt Bailey of the writers' free expression group PEN America said the action "is part of a larger pattern of Facebook seeking to undercut or silence anyone analyzing the platforms' practices from the outside."

jc/sms (Reuters, AFP, AP)