Warner Blasts Facebook for Suspending NYU Researchers Studying Political Ads
By Alexandra S. Levine

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) blasted Facebook on Wednesday for cutting off access to New York University researchers who have been scraping the platform and using a company database to study political advertising and disinformation across the social network.

Context: Facebook’s suspension of the academics — which entailed disabling their accounts, apps, pages and access to the platform — comes as the company remains in hot water in Washington, where the Biden administrationmembers of Congress, the D.C. attorney general and others have criticized the social media giant’s transparency or lack thereof — most recently around data on Covid misinformation.

The site’s Ad Library has been central to independent researchers’ efforts to analyze past elections and now, the looming 2022 midterms.

"Deeply concerning": Warner said Wednesday that those efforts have been crucial in helping to expose misconduct and dangers on the platform, including ads that violate Facebook’s policies and peddle fraudulent financial scams.

“For several years now, I have called on social media platforms like Facebook to work with, and better empower, independent researchers, whose efforts consistently improve the integrity and safety of social media platforms by exposing harmful and exploitative activity,” Warner said Wednesday. “Instead, Facebook has seemingly done the opposite.”

Facebook had previously jousted with NYU's researchers before last year's presidential election, warning them to stop using a digital tool that tracks how people are targeted with political ads. POLITICO has used data from NYU's Ad Observatory Project in stories about groups' use of Facebook, for instance an article in October about a pro-labor nonprofit's prolific spending on ads in election battleground states.

Facebook fires back: Product management director Mike Clark said in a blog postthat "research cannot be the justification for compromising people's privacy." The Ad Observatory Project violated Facebook's policies in its "unauthorized scraping" of data from Facebook and action had been taken to protect users, he said.  

"We welcome research that holds us accountable, and doesn’t compromise the security of our platform or the privacy of the people who use it," Clark wrote. The action against the NYU team "doesn’t change our commitment to providing more transparency around ads on Facebook or our ongoing collaborations with academia."

Warner called on Congress “to act to bring greater transparency to the shadowy world of online advertising.” The suspensions were first reported by Bloomberg.