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Facebook bans personal accounts of those researching the spread of misinformation

At this point, Facebook is well known for false information and conspiracy theories posted all over with not much fact-checking going on. There have been numerous occasions where cases of extremism and radicalisation have slipped through the huge cracks that Facebook has regarding content and how it’s spread. Facebook’s business model is majorly to blame as it has algorithmically organised content which will keep bringing up relative posts even if the original posts have been removed, and data-targeted ads, and whomever can afford to buy ads for the website can have them, which can lead to things such as lies about the consensus and general political influence which can end up being harmful. A group of researchers were involved in the NYU Ad Observatory, a project designed to seek the origin and spread of political ads on Facebook, discover who is paying for them and how they are targeting vulnerable people.

The researching academic group is carrying out is important and has major implications to help understand the spread on disinformation, as Facebook does not fact-check political ads. The work the researchers were carrying out was helped along with a browser plug-in they created called Ad Observer, which is purely used to collect data on political ads, who they are being shown to and why those people are being targeted. As it states on the website, no information that could identify a person is being collected, such as names or friends lists. Once the data has been collected by the plug-in, researchers and journalists will have public access to the information to reveal issues and trends on Facebook’s platform.

Some observations made directly from this research include the fact that misinformation about the far-right is more engaging than that about the center or left sources. Another story resulting from the research is Facebook’s failure to disclose who exactly pays for most of the political adverts that are so common on their site. Some information is voluntarily shared through Facebook’s Ad Library, but not as much as you need to get a clear picture of what’s going on. It doesn’t share data about how ads are targeted based on interests of users. It does provide information based on targeted ads through a research program called FORT, but this is actually controlled and filtered by Facebook so is more than likely not the whole story.

Facebook has said the researchers were banned because they violated their terms of service and said the Ad Observer plug-in collected data about users that didn’t consent to the collection of this data, but as Protocol reported in March, Facebook is referring to “advertisers’ accounts, including the names and profile pictures of public pages that run political ads and the contents of those ads.”

Tech website The Verge asked Facebook to confirm this, but they were declined comment. The Cambridge Analytica hack was only possible as Facebook didn’t oversee how information could be extracted from the platform, which resulted in a $5 billion fine and privacy checks completed by the FTC, so it’s no wonder they are wary of third parties collecting data. Facebook has said due to FTC guidelines they must ban the NYU researchers and disable any platform access and associated pages. Though now the FTC has said it is completely inaccurate and there are no rules that insist they take this action.

Facebook tried to say the plug-in Ad Observer was violating users’ privacy, but an audit of the plug-in’s code was carried out by Mozilla say this is another false claim. Chief Security Officer at Mozilla, Marshall Erwin wrote in a blog post (emphasis his): “We decided to recommend Ad Observer because our reviews assured us that it respects user privacy and supports transparency. It collects ads, targeting parameters and metadata associated with the ads. It does not collect personal posts or information about your friends. And it does not compile a user profile on its servers.” Facebook has banned any pages advertising the project and the personal accounts of any researchers involved with the project, but the Ad Observer plug-in is still live and operational. Facebook is still yet to comment on this matter.

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