Press Release

ADL Condemns Facebook Decision to Shut Down Independent Study of Targeted Political Ads

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New York, NY, August 6, 2021 … ADL (the Anti-Defamation League) today condemned Facebook for shutting down the work of two researchers who were studying how misinformation spreads through political ads on Facebook, and demands that the company immediately restore these researchers’ accounts and access to the data they require.

Earlier this week, Facebook shut down the work of Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy, two researchers at New York University, who were studying the flow of political misinformation on the platform. The NYU researchers’ initial findings were alarming, showing how ads can use Facebook to manipulate voters and how the company’s algorithms spread partisan misinformation.

At the time the researchers’ access and accounts were blocked by Facebook, the two scholars had begun to study how Facebook might be furthering widespread distrust of COVID vaccinations, whether the platform was contributing to the undermining of Americans’ confidence in elections, and what role the company might have played in the leadup to the violent attack on the Capitol on January 6. 

“Facebook appears to have had much to lose if it allowed this research to continue,” ADL CEO and National Director Jonathan A. Greenblatt said. “And we all have much to lose if Facebook’s self-serving decision is allowed to stand unabated.”

The urgency of allowing independent research and promoting transparency has never been clearer. ADL’s recent Online Antisemitism Report Card shows that Facebook is not doing enough to stop hate and harassment, especially identity-based harassment, on its platform. ADL gave Facebook a near-failing grade on data accessibility because, as ADL’s report notes, “the ability for researchers to retrieve data from platforms is an essential predicate for any third-party efforts to measure the prevalence of antisemitism and hate online.” Facebook’s selectivity as to who receives access to its data is confusing and frustrating, as exemplified by ADL being denied access to CrowdTangle, a tool used to track how content spreads across the platform. The ban imposed on the NYU researchers only adds to ADL’s concerns. 

As part of the Stop Hate For Profit coalition, ADL and partners have repeatedly called on Facebook to submit to regular third-party audits on hate and misinformation. Facebook’s current “civil rights” audit transparency reports lack utility for the civil rights community, in part because they are not independently verified by a third party. Last year, the company said it would commit to auditing from a firm composed of advertising representatives, but ADL has yet to see any follow-through. 

Facebook had initially attempted to justify the account suspensions as being required by the Federal Trade Commission’s consent decree, a claim that has since been contradicted by the agency itself. As the FTC pointedly noted, the agency is “committed to protecting the privacy of people, and efforts to shield targeted advertising practices from scrutiny run counter to that mission.” 

“Facebook’s gatekeeping around data access and research has grave implications. Today, it’s these NYU researchers, tomorrow it could be another group of scholars or activists,” said Greenblatt. “This overreach by the company curbs rigorous inquiry and serves as an ominous, thinly veiled threat to anyone who uncovers information about the company that its executives do not want to see the light of day. Facebook needs to be held accountable. ADL stands firmly behind Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy in their work to compel the company to come clean about the wealth of hate and disinformation on its platform and how it is spread.”

Disclosure: Laura Edelson is a candidate for an ADL fellowship.