NEW YORK—Last week, two New York University researchers, Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy, received a letter from Facebook demanding that they discontinue use of a research tool crucial to understanding political ads on the platform. The letter threatens further action if the researchers do not comply by November 30. The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University is representing Edelson and McCoy in this matter.
Edelson and McCoy’s research relies on Ad Observer, a browser plug-in they and others created that allows Facebook users to voluntarily share with the researchers information about the political ads shown to them by the platform. The tool enables researchers and journalists to follow trends in Facebook political advertising in their states via a public-facing site, Ad Observatory.org. Local reporters from Wisconsin to Utah to Florida and more have used this resource to write stories about the upcoming election.
The following can be attributed to Laura Edelson, Ph.D. candidate in computer science at NYU Tandon and the lead researcher behind the NYU Ad Observatory.
“Transparency is essential, given the contention and disinformation coursing through our current election cycle. Political ad mis and disinformation is a cybersecurity vulnerability for our democracy. We developed Ad Observatory and the Ad Observer plug in to deliver an essential level of cybersecurity analysis that is otherwise unavailable to the public, and which makes clear who is trying to influence us and why.”
The following can be attributed to Professor Damon McCoy, professor of computer science and engineering at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering
“Facebook’s algorithm allows advertisers to target individuals and groups based on information they disclose and data Facebook gathers in the background. Unfortunately, this has enabled certain Facebook advertisers to profile citizens and send them misinformation about candidates and policies that are designed to influence or even suppress their vote. Shutting down a key data source for studying election interference and manipulation—in November, of all months—impedes our efforts to safeguard the democratic process.”
The following can be attributed to Alex Abdo, Litigation Director at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
“Frankly it’s shocking that Facebook is trying to suppress research into political disinformation in the lead-up to the election. There’s really no question more urgent right now than the question of how Facebook’s decisions are shaping and perhaps distorting political discourse. It would be terrible for democracy if Facebook is allowed to be the gatekeeper to journalism and research about Facebook.”
The following can be attributed to Ramya Krishnan, Staff Attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
“Independent research is crucial to understanding Facebook and the powerful influence it exerts on our democracy. Journalists and researchers who want to study Facebook shouldn’t be limited to the tools and data that Facebook deigns to make available. Those tools and data are defined by Facebook’s interests—not the public’s.”
In 2018, the Knight Institute sent a letter to Facebook requesting that it amend its terms of service to establish a “safe harbor” for public-interest research and journalism on the platform. This safe harbor would permit researchers like Edelson and McCoy to study Facebook’s platform using basic tools of digital investigation, including Ad Observer, whose use might otherwise violate Facebook’s terms of service. A copy of the letter is available here.
In 2019, in the midst of ongoing negotiations between the Knight Institute and Facebook more than 200 researchers signed an open letter in support of the “safe harbor” effort. A copy of the researchers’ letter is available here.
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