Meta accused of trying to discredit ad researchers

Meta allegedly tried to discredit university researchers in Brazil who had flagged fraudulent adverts on the social network’s ad platform.

Núcleo, a Brazil-based news organization, said it has obtained government documents showing that attorneys representing Meta questioned the credibility of researchers from NetLab, which is part of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).

NetLab’s research into Meta’s ads contributed to Brazil’s National Consumer Secretariat (Senacon) decision in 2023 to fine Meta $1.7 million (9.3 million BRL), which is still being appealed. Meta (then Facebook) was separately fined of $1.2 million (6.6 million BRL) related to Cambridge Analytica.

As noted by Núcleo, NetLab’s report showed that Facebook, despite being notified about the issues, had failed to remove more than 1,800 scam ads that fraudulently used the name of a government program that was supposed to assist those in debt.

In response to the fine, attorneys representing Meta from law firm TozziniFreire allegedly accused the NetLab team of bias and of failing to involve Meta in the research process.

Núcleo says that it obtained the administrative filing through freedom of information requests to Senacon. The documents are said to date from December 26 last year and to be part of the ongoing case against Meta.

A spokesperson for NetLab, who asked not to be identified by name due to online harassment directed at the organization’s members, told The Register that the research group was aware of the Núcleo report.

“We were kind of surprised to see the account of our work in this law firm document,” the spokesperson said. “We expected to be treated with more fairness for our work. Honestly, it comes at a very bad moment because NetLab particularly, but also Brazilian science in general, is being attacked by far-right groups.”

Similar push back against social media research is underway in the US. It was recently reported that the Stanford Internet Observatory, which has been exploring social media manipulation for the past five years, is being scaled back by the university following pressure from Republicans in the US House of Representatives.

On Thursday, more than 70 civil society groups including NetLab published an open letter decrying Meta’s legal tactics.

“This is an attack on scientific research work, and attempts at intimidation of researchers and researchers who are performing excellent work in the production of knowledge from empirical analysis that have been fundamental to qualify the public debate on the accountability of social media platforms operating in the country, especially with regard to paid content that causes harm to consumers of these platforms and that threaten the future of our democracy,” the letter says.

“This kind of attack and intimidation is made even more dangerous by aligning with arguments that, without any evidence, have been used by the far right to discredit the most diverse scientific productions, including NetLab itself.”

The claim, allegedly made by Meta’s attorneys, is that the ad biz was “not given the opportunity to appoint a technical assistant and present questions” in the preparation of the NetLabs report. This is particularly striking given Meta’s efforts to limit research into its ad platform.

In 2021, two years after shutting down ad transparency tools from ProPublica, Mozilla, and Who Targets Me, Meta disabled the accounts of researchers at NYU’s Ad Observatory Project claiming that their work violated its terms of service. Those involved denounced the social network’s account cutoff as an attempt to stifle legitimate research into disinformation.

Meta’s discomfort with scrutiny of its systems can be also seen in the subpoenas issued to third-party developers who created an unofficial API for Meta’s Threads app “for educational and research purposes.” Meta’s legal representatives claimed the API violated the company’s terms of service.

Meta is preparing to take another step in this direction come August when it expects to shut down CrowdTangle, a social media monitoring firm it acquired in 2016. Meta cites technology and regulatory changes for its decision.

The biz has been working on a replacement tool called Meta Content Library, which it says “was designed to help us meet new regulatory requirements for data-sharing and transparency while meeting Meta’s rigorous privacy and security standards.”

In a March blog post, Brandon Silverman, co-founder and former CEO of Crowdtangle, said, “Closing down CrowdTangle 12 weeks before the US Presidential election is hard to defend…” and cited concerns about expected election interference. He also said Meta Content Library is not close to CrowdTangle yet in terms of its capabilities.

NetLab’s spokesperson said the group’s researchers “rely a lot on CrowdTangle … and not only us. [The decision to close CrowdTangle] is being discussed by pretty much everyone who studies information on Meta.”

Asked to comment, a Meta spokesperson told The Register, “We value input from civil society organizations and academic institutions for the context they provide as we constantly work toward improving our services. Meta’s defense filed with the Brazilian Consumer Regulator questioned the use of the NetLab report as legal evidence, since it was produced without giving us prior opportunity to contribute meaningfully, in violation of local legal requirements.” ®

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Thomas Claburn