Facebook’s excuses for shutting down research ring hollow

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Last week, Facebook shut down the personal accounts of several researchers affiliated with New York University, claiming that their work—including a browser extension called Ad Observer, which allows users to share the ads that they are shown in their Facebook news feeds—violated the social network’s privacy policies. The company said that while it wants to help social scientists with their work, it can’t allow user information to be shared with third parties, in part because of the consent decree it signed with the Federal Trade Commission as part of a $5 billion settlement in the Camridge Analytica case in 2018. Researchers, including some of those who were involved in the NYU project, said Facebook’s behavior was not surprising, given the company’s long history of dragging its feet when it comes to sharing information. And not long after Facebook used the FTC consent decree as a justification for the shutdown, the federal agency took the unusual step of making public a letter it sent to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, stating that if the company had contacted the FTC about the research, “we would have pointed out that the consent decree does not bar Facebook from creating exceptions for good-faith research in the public interest.”

To discuss how Facebook responded in this case, its track record when it comes to social-science research, and the way that other platforms such as Twitter treat researchers, CJR brought together a number of experts using our Galley discussion platform. The group included Laura Edelson, a doctoral candidate in computer science at NYU and one of the senior scientists on the Ad Observatory team; Jonathan Mayer, a professor at Princeton and former chief technologist with the Federal Communication Commission; Julia Angwin, founder and editor-in-chief of The Markup, a data-driven investigative reporting startup that has a similar ad research tool called Citizen Browser; Neil Chilson, a fellow at the Charles Koch Institute and former chief technologist at the Federal Trade Commission; Nathalie Marechal of Ranking Digital Rights; and Rebekah Tromble, a doctoral candidate and director of the Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics at George Washington University.

Edelson has said the drastic action Facebook took against her and the rest of the team was the culmination of a series of escalating threats about the group’s research (they are currently lobbying the company to get their accounts reinstated), but that she also has good relationships with some people at the social network. “Facebook’s behavior toward our group has been… complicated,” she said. Since the group studies the safety and efficacy of Facebook’s systems around political ads and misinformation, Edelson said “there is always going to be an inherent tension there,” but that there are several people she has worked with at Facebook who are “smart and dedicated.” One thing that makes the company’s behavior somewhat confusing is that the user information Facebook says it is trying to protect is the names of advertisers in its political ad program, which are publicly available through its own Ad Library. “Those are, technically speaking, Facebook user names,” Edelson says. “We think they are public, and Facebook is saying they are not.”

As for the company’s justification for the shutdown, which rested in part on the FTC consent decree, Mayer—who worked in enforcement at the Federal Communications Commission — says that even without the FT’C’s own repudiation of this argument, he doesn’t see any legal case for liability stemming from the NYU research—and even if Facebook genuinely perceived a risk, he says, “they could have easily reached out to FTC and obtained guidance. That’s routine regulatory practice.” Neil Chilson, however, disagrees. “Having spent 4+ years at the FTC and having participated in dozens of investigations and enforcement actions during that time, it is blindingly obvious to me that the NYU research project creates a heightened risk to the company, particularly under its 2019 consent decree with the FTC,” he said. For a company “with a giant target on its back,” anything that went wrong with the Ad Observer project could create heightened legal risk, he said.

Tromble has experience working not just with Facebook but with Twitter: she is working with a group to research the impact Facebook may have had on the 2020 election, and she is also the head of a team of international researchers who were selected by Twitter to research the health of the discourse on the network, and how to improve it. She said she was “honestly quite dismayed” at the action Facebook took against the NYU research team, whose work she said was impressive. “I’ve worked with and talked to many people at the company for years, and there are quite a few with whom I see eye-to-eye and who are very supportive of independent research and accountability,” she said. “However, there are many at Facebook who see independent scrutiny as a risk.” Tromble, who was involved in the early stages of the Social Science One project, a much-hyped partnership designed to share Facebook data, said she “went into the project with cautious optimism, which quickly turned to frustration,” and that even when data was provided, it was of “limited utility.”

Here’s more on research and the platforms:

Congressional questions: In the wake of Facebook’s decision in the NYU case, three Democratic senators sent a letter to the company asking it to explain in more detail why it terminated the researchers’ accounts. “While we agree that Facebook must safeguard user privacy, it is similarly imperative that Facebook allow credible academic researchers and journalists like those involved in the Ad Observatory project to conduct independent research that will help illuminate how the company can better tackle misinformation, disinformation, and other harmful activity that is proliferating on its platforms,” the senators wrote.

Trouble with Twitter: Tromble said that until fairly recently, she would have described working on research with Twitter “in much less charitable terms than challenging,” because while the company said it wanted to help researchers, it didn’t really know how to go about it. “We quickly discovered that there simply wasn’t a good understanding of what academic researchers do and how to support our work,” she said. “And no one in the company had enough buy-in to provide the type of support, and data—especially data—that we needed. About a year ago, however, we started to see some breakthroughs.” Newer staff have been much more accommodating needs of her team, she said.

There oughta be a law: Technology writer Casey Newton wrote in his newsletter Platformer that he wonders why “we built a world in which so much civic discourse takes place inside a handful of giant digital shopping malls,” and that one response to the way Facebook treats researchers is for Congress to pass a law. “It could write national privacy legislation, for example, and create a dedicated carveout for qualified academic researchers. It could require platforms to disclose more data in general, to academics and everyone else. It could establish a federal agency dedicated to the oversight of online communication platforms.” The alternative, he writes, “as always, is to wait for platforms to regulate themselves—and to continuously be disappointed by the result.”

Other notable stories:

Hundreds of New York Times tech workers walked off the job for half a day on Thursday, protesting what they say is management’s refusal to negotiate with them in good faith. The workers, who help produce the print and digital versions of the paper, announced in April that they had enough support among the 650 workers eligible to form a union, but the paper rejected the union’s request to be recognized, and the two sides have been engaged in tense negotiations over who should be allowed to vote on ratification. The Daily Beast also reported that the law firm representing the paper accidentally sent a private strategy memo to a representative for the NewsGuild, which is supporting the Times workers.

MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow, one of the network’s highest-profile stars for more than a decade, is considering leaving the network when her contract expires, according to a report from The Daily Beast. The report, which the site said was based on interviews with six people familiar with the anchor’s plans, said “while the star host has occasionally entertained other offers in the past, she has in recent months increasingly expressed an openness to exiting when her deal ends, citing a desire to spend more time with her family and the toll of hosting a nightly program since 2008.” CNN said her departure would be “a serious blow.”

Dylan Howard, the former editor of the National Enquirer—who reportedly played a key role in suppressing stories about president Donald Trump’s affairs, and helped dig up dirt on Harvey Weinstein’s accusers—is trying to mount a comeback of sorts in the Hamptons, according to the New York Times. Howard has started a new company called Pantheon Media, the paper says, and has formed a partnership with the Mondadori Group, the biggest publisher in Italy and the backer of the Grazia fashion magazine franchise, to publish Grazia in the United States. The Grazia Gazette: The Hamptons is among the first projects.

Subscription newsletter platform Substack is expanding outside the US after raising $65 million from investors, recruiting journalists in places like Romania, Brazil, and India. But this raises questions about how the company plans to handle potential threats to press freedom in some of these countries, reports Rest of World. “When Substack is supporting local writers elsewhere, there’s some financial support, some income for you to write,” Kirsten Han, a Singaporean freelance journalist, told the publication. “But what happens if you say you’re being called in for an investigation? What happens if you are detained? What happens if you’re being harassed in your country?”

Axios reports that the New York Times is launching a series of new, subscriber-only newsletters from opinion writers, including tech columnist Kara Swisher; sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom; and Jay Caspian Kang, previously a writer-at-large for the New York Times Magazine. Several existing newsletters from opinion writers at the paper will now be available only to subscribers, including ones from columnists Jamelle Bouie, Paul Krugman, and Frank Bruni. And eight existing email publications that contain mostly news will also be available only to subscribers, including newsletters about politics, technology, and sports.

Rumble, a fast-growing video-sharing service that has become popular with right-wing commentators, has started payng well-known conservative media personalities and influencers hundreds of thousands of dollars each to create content for the network, the Washington Post reports. The Toronto-based service said Thursday it has struck deals with former U.S. congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, former Intercept writer Glenn Greenwald, and others who the service says have agreed to “challenge the status quo.”

The Nieman Journalism Lab interviewed Paul Cheung, the new head of the Center for Public Integrity, formerly director of journalism and technology innovation at the Knight Foundation, and CPI editor-in-chief Matt DeRienzo. “I’m not worried about the journalism. But if you don’t have the business and technical infrastructure to support the journalism, then it’s just not going to thrive,” said Cheung. “So I think that’s the work that I will be focusing on: How do I make sure that the journalism has proper distribution channels? What is the right sort of business strategy and monetization strategy behind that?”

Andrew McCormick writes for CJR about coverage of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “code red” report, which was issued Monday. The coverage was good, he says, an improvement on the previous IPCC report in 2018, when coverage “was all but absent from more than half of major American newspapers at the time.” But that level of attention needs to be sustained, McCormick says, and focus needs to be directed in certain areas. “An ironclad rule of the global climate emergency is that it will affect the poor, communities of color, and Indigenous people first and worst,” he writes. “Virtually no major media outlets in the US articulated this in their coverage of the IPCC report, even while touching on extreme weather disasters that disproportionately affect those with the least resources to cope.”

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