Facebook tells NYU to scrap research on political ads

Facebook has tightened its rules on political advertising and banned new advertising in the week before the election.
Facebook has tightened its rules on political advertising and banned new advertising in the week before the election.PHOTO: REUTERS

SAN FRANCISCO • Facebook has demanded that New York University (NYU) pull the plug on a research project into the platform's targeting practices for political advertisements, saying it is a violation of its terms against collecting user data.

"A week ago, Facebook sent me a (cease and desist order) asking us to take down AdObserver and delete our data. The public has a right to know how political ads are targeted, so we will not be complying with this request," Ms Laura Edelson, a PhD student and researcher with NYU Ad Observatory, said in a post last Friday.

With just days until the United States presidential election on Nov 3, Facebook is being sharply scrutinised over the role it plays in campaigning, and the way candidates and political groups use the social media network to influence voters.

The researchers are collecting information via an extension or plug-in - AdObserver - that is installed on a Web browser and copies Facebook ads into a public database. Ms Edelson and others track information such as which profiles are targeted by which types of ads.

"We informed NYU months ago that moving forward with a project to scrape people's Facebook information would violate our terms," said Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne. "Our Ad Library, which is accessed by more than two million people every month, including NYU, already provides more transparency into political and issue advertising than TV, radio or any other digital ad platform."

But Ms Edelson said the system is not perfect. "Our cyber-security analysis shows vulnerability in Facebook's transparency algorithms that reveals they routinely miss including political ads in its public archive," she said.

Facebook has tightened its rules on political advertising and banned new advertising in the week before the election. It told NYU to stop the project by the end of next month.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2020, with the headline 'Facebook tells NYU to scrap research on political ads'. Print Edition | Subscribe