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Facebook has good reasons for blocking research into political ad targeting | John Naughton

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October 31, 2020 at 04:00PM

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New York University research into who sees the messages is laudable but its collection of personal data isn’t

It looked like another classic Facebook scandal: a report in the Wall Street Journal with the headline “Facebook Seeks Shutdown of NYU Research Project Into Political Ad Targeting”. The story was that Facebook was “demanding that a New York University research project cease collecting data about its political-ad-targeting practices, setting up a fight with academics seeking to study the platform without the company’s permission. The dispute involves the NYU Ad Observatory, a project launched last month by the university’s engineering school that has recruited more than 6,500 volunteers to use a specially designed browser extension to collect data about the political ads Facebook shows them.”

Cue outrage, including, initially, from this columnist. Typical tech company bullying, etc, etc. The NYU project seemed like a thoroughly good idea. After the controversies about its role in the 2016 election, Facebook created an archive of political ads that ran on its platform, showing who sponsored an ad, when it ran and the location of people who saw it, but excluding information about the targeting that determines who sees the ads. The NYU researchers sought to provide journalists and others with a tool for searching political ads by state and contest to see what messages are targeted at specific audiences and how those ads are funded.

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