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4 August 2021

NYU’s researchers are the latest victims of Big Tech’s war on scrutiny

Facebook has blocked critical academics from its platform under the guise of protecting privacy.

By Oscar Williams

Facebook has disabled the accounts of New York University (NYU) researchers who had been investigating political advertising on the platform – in the latest effort by the Silicon Valley firm to crack down on independent scrutiny.

Facebook said on 3 August that it had cut off the researchers because they had failed to comply with policies designed to protect user privacy. The researchers had developed a browser extension called Ad Observer that scraped data about the adverts distributed across Facebook’s platform.

The academics have hit back at Facebook’s claims, noting that the “users” whose privacy the advertising giant has sought to protect were actually advertisers. “Allowing Facebook to dictate who can investigate what is occurring on its platform is not in the public interest,” Damon McCoy, associate professor of computer science and engineering at NYU, said in a statement.

“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.”

However, this isn’t the first sign that Facebook is seeking to make it harder for researchers to scrutinise how the platform operates. The New York Times reported in July that Facebook’s executives had decided to break up the team behind CrowdTangle, a data analytics tool used by researchers, including those at NYU.

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[See also: Apple vs Facebook: how the war between the Silicon Valley giants is changing tech]

The tool has been used to expose a number of uncomfortable truths for Facebook, including that right-wing American political pundits’ pages drove greater engagement than established publications. The company’s executives had apparently grown tired of researchers using the company’s own tools to scrutinise how its algorithms really work.

“One of the main reasons that I left Facebook is that the most senior leadership in the company does not want to invest in understanding the impact of its core products,” Brian Boland, a former Facebook employee who ran CrowdTangle, told the New York Times. “And it doesn’t want to make the data available for others to do the hard work and hold them accountable.”

The phenomenon of withholding data from critical researchers is not new. Tech firms such as Facebook and Google have long provided data to academics who are seen to be industry friendly or provide acceptable criticism that distracts from more threatening scrutiny.

[See also: How Google quietly funds Europe’s leading tech policy institutes]

Facebook’s efforts to cut short the NYU researchers’ work are part of an insidious campaign by the industry to shape the debate about its products, promote convenient scrutiny and silence dangerous critics. As one academic told the New Statesman recently: “These firms aren’t trying to erase all criticism, they’re trying to amplify the criticism they prefer – the criticism they can structurally live with.”