Facebook is trying to prevent NYU from examining its political ad-targeting. Researchers say they have no intention of stopping their work.

  • The NYU Ad Observatory is researching Facebook's political advertising targeting practices using a browser plug-in.
  • Laura Edelson, a lead researcher for the project, told Business Insider that Ad Observatory is finding ads Facebook's internal archival system is missing, highlighting the importance of the work.
  • Facebook is trying to get the voluntary research project shutdown, claiming it violates its terms of service.
  • Edelson said she and her colleagues have no intention of stopping their research, even as Facebook threatens to take further action against Ad Observatory at the end of November.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Facebook is trying to stop a New York University research project from studying its political-ad targeting practices just weeks before the presidential election. 

The Ad Observatory is a research project from the university's engineering school that uses a browser plug-in to collect information about Facebook's political ads. The project has over 6,500 volunteers as reported by the Wall Street Journal, and researchers are able to examine the ads all the participants see and why they're being targeted for those ads. 

Facebook has an internal archive that keeps track of advertisements on the platform, but Laura Edelson, a PhD candidate and one of the lead researchers on the project, told Business Insider the Ad Observatory is catching political ads Facebook misses.

"We collect political ads that weren't voluntarily disclosed to Facebook, that Facebook didn't catch," she said. "So we're starting to understand  that Facebook isn't perfect at identifying political ads on its system." 

Ad Observatory's work is also different from Facebook's internal tools because it makes ad targeting information transparent. Facebook could be making that information transparent, but it's choosing not to.

"We know that this is something that requires public oversight, and platforms aren't willing to make this data generally transparent to the public," Edelson said. "That's where we feel the need to step in."

But a week ago, Facebook sent Edelson and her colleague Damon McCoy a letter demanding they stop their research, according to a press release provided to Business Insider from the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, who is representing Edelson and McCoy.

Facebook claims the research violates its terms of services. According to the Wall Street Journal, a Facebook privacy policy official wrote in the letter, "Scraping tools, no matter how well-intentioned, are not a permissible means of collecting information from us."

But Edelson explained that not only does Ad Observatory not reveal any user data in their research, they're not even collecting any user data. "We collect the ad and how the ad is targeted," she said. "We don't collect anything about user interaction with the ad."

Facebook has been at the center of political controversy in recent months and years, with officials examining the role social media platforms play in political elections and misinformation campaigns. The company is attempting to combat these issues, taking action like creating their internal archive of advertisements and creating a plan to ban all political ads indefinitely after the polls close on November 3.

Edelson told Insider she applauds those efforts, but Ad Observatory's research has shown they aren't enough. "There's enough political ads that are not properly disclosed on the system that it matters that the public get access to those ads," Edelson said. "It's not a trivial number."

The Facebook letter states the company plans to take further action against Edelson and McCoy if they don't stop their research by November 30. 

But Edelson told Business Insider she and McCoy will not be complying with the demand, and they have no intention of stopping their research. Alex Abdo, the litigation director at the Knight First Amendment Institute, doubled down on the message in the same press release.

"Frankly it's shocking that Facebook is trying to suppress research into political disinformation in the lead-up to the election," he wrote. "It would be terrible for democracy if Facebook is allowed to be the gatekeeper to journalism and research about Facebook."

Facebook did not immediately respond to Business Insider's request for comment on this piece.

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