Facebook Shutdown of NYU Ad Observatory Project Researchers Undermines Democracy

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Yesterday, Facebook suspended the accounts of several public interest researchers at New York University’s Ad Observatory project. The researchers were running the Ad Observer plug-in, a tool that allows Facebook users to volunteer their own data about the ads and ad targeting they encounter on the platform. 

Volunteers nationwide — including Common Cause members — signed up and opted-in to let NYU’s Ad Observatory Project automatically get a copy of the ads they were shown on Facebook, so researchers could analyze them. 

By suspending the researchers’ accounts, Facebook has effectively shut down the Ad Observatory project’s important work. The project has been critical in shedding light not only on how politicians are targeting Facebook users, but also whether the platform is complying with its own political advertisement policies.


Statement of Yosef Getachew, Common Cause Media and Democracy Program Director 

“Facebook’s shutdown of the Ad Observatory project is a serious threat to academic freedom, disinformation research, and accountability. The Ad Observatory project has uncovered serious flaws in Facebook’s ad policies. For example, the project exposed both Facebook’s failure to properly disclose some election ads despite their policies and the ability of campaigns to use manipulative targeting practices to reach voters on the platform.  

“NYU’s Ad Observatory project was run entirely from volunteer-donated data that was not personally identifiable, making any claims from Facebook that this violated user privacy untrue. Shutting down this project is just another attempt by the platform to diminish the power of users and skirt accountability. We need more political ad transparency not less, particularly at a time when disinformation agents are using Facebook and other platforms to target voters with harmful content.”