Facebook wants NYU to stop sharing political ad data it keeps secret



Facebook isn’t happy with New York University.

It’s because of NYU Ad Observatory, a newly launched research project from the university’s engineering school that aims to show how different election campaigns are spending their ad money on the site, and what kinds of voters they’re targeting. The research is gathered with help from a data-collecting browser extension.

Facebook let NYU know that the project, which is being driven by the work of more than 6,500 volunteers, runs afoul of the social network’s terms of service provision barring bulk data collection.  Word of the Oct. 16 letter comes via a Wall Street Journal report that ran late Friday.

“Scraping tools, no matter how well-intentioned, are not a permissible means of collecting information from us,” Facebook’s letter read. It goes on to threaten “additional enforcement action” if the project isn’t shut down, and if data that was already gathered isn’t deleted. 

It’s not clear what kind of enforcement actions are on the table, but a Facebook spokesperson told the WSJ that code could be changed to block the NYU browser extension. Though it’s also worth noting that, after the report published, Facebook clarified that it wouldn’t pursue any action until, in the newspaper’s words, “well after the election.”

Facebook may have been swayed in part by the political response to the WSJ report. Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar said in a statement that the social network’s stance of “making it harder for Americans to get information about political ads” in the middle of an election is “unacceptable.”

Facebook is notably on the hook for an upcoming Senate hearing in which tech executives will be grilled on misinformation, moderation, and bias in online spaces. There are also rumblings of a possible antitrust case brought by the government against Facebook.

The project, which hasn’t been taken down as of Oct. 24, offers a wealth of illuminating information on how campaigns are spending dollars to push ads across Facebook. The main page features top-level stats, just as the detail that almost 30 percent of Donald Trump’s Facebook ad spend attacks the media.

Things get even more interesting when you drill down into the different categories, though. You’re able to view what ad spending looks like at the national and state levels, but even better: You can zero in on individual Senate, House, and governor’s races. 

Not only do you see how much money each campaign is spending; you also get a breakdown of topics the ads for each candidate cover, the dollar amount going into each one, and the specifics of how ads are targeted toward each candidate’s hoped-for voters. It’s not necessarily comprehensive information, since it depends on how much data volunteers are able to gather. But it’s more transparency than Facebook has provided on the political ad spending hosted by the platform.

That may well change after the election. The NYU team has indicated that more transparency from Facebook would be the best way to halt the Ad Observatory project. And in its October letter to the university, Facebook said that it’s already set up an academic partnership that will study how the site impacted voters during the 2020 election.



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