September 22, 2021

Facebook’s Illusory Promise of Transparency

By Orestis Papakyriakopoulos, Ashley Gorham, Eli Lucherini, Mihir Kshirsagar, and Arvind Narayanan.

Facebook’s latest move to obstruct academic research about its platform by disabling NYU’s Ad Observatory is deeply troubling. While Facebook claims to offer researchers access to its FORT Researcher Platform as an alternative, that is an illusory offer as we have recently learned first hand in connection with our ongoing research project that studies how the social media platforms amplified or moderated the distribution of political ads in the 2020 U.S. elections.

As part of our research, in March 2021, we attempted to gain access to the FORT dataset. We were told by Facebook that we had to sign a “strictly non-negotiable” agreement that was “mandated by Cambridge Analytica and the FTC.” We pushed back on this ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ approach, noting that there was nothing in the consent decree that mandated such an agreement. Facebook later conceded in a subsequent email that they were under no legal mandate and that their approach was simply based on their internal business justification. 

We then continued to attempt to negotiate the terms of access with Facebook. In particular, a few clauses in the agreement were problematic for us. The most prominent one was a pre-publication review. We sought to clarify whether Facebook would assert that information about how the Facebook advertising platform was used to target political ads in the 2020 elections is “Confidential Information” that the agreement would allow them to “remove” from our publication. Understandably, we did not want to expend time on research without some assurance that we could publish our work without Facebook’s permission. Indeed, as we subsequently discovered, one project had negotiated to exclude such a clause. But Facebook has, to date, not explained its position to us on the pre-publication review.

Separately, we had a more basic question about what additional data fields were available to researchers through the FORT Platform and whether there were any restrictions on the types of tools we could use to analyze the data. Despite promising that they would get back to us “shortly,” we are still waiting for a response since May, despite following up diligently. 

Our experience dealing with Facebook highlights their long running pattern of misdirection and doublespeak to dodge meaningful scrutiny of their actions. While researchers and investigative journalists have other means of analyzing the platform’s practices (e.g., Citizen Browser and Mozilla Rally), the reality is that Facebook has control over the information that the public needs to understand its powerful role in our society. And, if Facebook continues to hide behind illusory offers, we need legislation to force them to provide meaningful access.