Tobacco giants don't get to decide who does research on smoking. Why does Facebook get to dictate studies?

Boffins tell US lawmakers social media titans cannot be trusted to police themselves


On Tuesday, lawmakers from the US House of Representatives heard from three academics who argued that social media companies cannot be trusted to police themselves.

That might seem like a foregone conclusion given Facebook's serial involvement in controversies over the past several years, its longstanding allergy to oversight, and its unrepentant decision this week to halt the development of "Instagram Kids" only after being pilloried by press reports that the company's own research acknowledged Instagram's mental toll on teens, particularly teen girls.

And that's what it was. The title of the hearing was its own spoiler: The Disinformation Black Box: Researching Social Media Data. Despite Facebook's public relations pushback over the weekend against its accusers – it challenged the claim that Instagram is 'toxic' to teens – the legislators involved came convinced that social media distributes misinformation and that it operates without adequate scrutiny.

Researchers can only see what companies want them to. And access can be cut off at any time

Citing the damage caused by misinformation – the US Capitol insurrection in January, lies about the severity of COVID-19, and ongoing vaccine disinformation – Bill Foster (D-IL), Chairman of the US House of Representatives Science, Space, and Technology Committee's Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, characterized social media manipulation as a public health threat and lamented the refusal of social media firms to provide the internal data necessary to respond.

"Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult for researchers to gain sufficient access to social media data," said Foster.

"Companies do make some information public, but it is largely through interfaces they control, meaning that researchers can only see what companies want them to. And access can be cut off at any time."

Chickens come home to roost

Foster might have had a recent episode of access denial in mind: Facebook's decision in August to terminate the accounts of NYU researchers who were investigating the company's ad operations.

Laura Edelson, a doctoral candidate in Computer Science at New York University and one of the researchers who lost access to Facebook because of her work on NYU's Ad Observatory Project, was among the three witnesses offering testimony – via video statements and longer written remarks.

"Tobacco companies don't get to decide who does research on smoking and the idea that social media companies get to decide who studies them is perverse," said Edelson.

"Lack of data is currently the most serious barrier to the work of misinformation researchers," she said, noting that Twitter is the only major social media company that allows researchers access to public data, though at a high cost.

Facebook bought a company called CrowdTangle in 2016, which a few researchers use for access although it's mainly offered as a business analytics product. And other platforms like YouTube and TikTok, she said, offer no suitable tools.

Researchers from her own team, from Mozilla, and journalists, she said, have attempted to crowdsource social media data. But some of the social media platforms, she said, have been hostile, and she pointed to Facebook's cancellation of her research team's accounts this summer and to the company's legal threats against Germany's Algorithm Watch.

"It's time for Congress to act to ensure that researchers and the public have access to data that we need to protect ourselves from online misinformation," she said.

No incentive, and no oversight

Alan Mislove, Professor and Interim Dean of the Khoury College of Computer Sciences at Northeastern University, came to a similar conclusion.

"Social media platforms do not currently have the proper incentives to allow research on their platforms, and have been observed to be actively hostile to important, ethical research that is in the public interest," he said.

"At the same time that such platforms' power and influence is reaching new heights, our ability as independent researchers to understand the impact that they are having is being reduced each day. Thus, I and other researchers need Congress' help to enable researchers to have sufficient access to data from social media platforms in order to ensure that the benets of these platforms do not come at a cost that is too high for society to bear."

Kevin Leicht, Professor of Sociology University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, offered a message along the same lines. "The biggest gap that we see in doing research is in the data and algorithms or the black box the social media companies use to determine what end users see," he said. "And at some level we need access not only to the data but to the black box."

Edelson in her prepared remarks urged Congress to pass a universal digital ad transparency law that would require digital ad platforms to make their ads available in a machine-readable format. And she said she intends to publish a draft proposal soon.

Mislove said proposed legislation, such as the Algorithmic Justice and Online Platform Transparency Act of 2021 and the Social Media Disclosure And Transparency of Advertisements (DATA) Act of 2021, would be helpful to researchers.

Mozilla, which helped vet NYU's Ad Observatory software, also recently endorsed the Social Media DATA Act to ensure ad platform transparency.

"Transparency is the first, unescapable step toward holding social media platforms accountable for harmful outcomes," said Marshall Erwin, Chief Security Officer at Mozilla, in a statement emailed to The Register.

"Without insights into what people experience, what ads are presented to them and why, what content is recommended to them and why, we cannot begin to understand how misinformation spreads."

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment. ®

Broader topics


Other stories you might like

  • Demand for PC and smartphone chips drops 'like a rock' says CEO of China’s top chipmaker
    Markets outside China are doing better, but at home vendors have huge component stockpiles

    Demand for chips needed to make smartphones and PCs has dropped "like a rock" – but mostly in China, according to Zhao Haijun, the CEO of China's largest chipmaker Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC).

    Speaking on the company's Q1 2022 earnings call last Friday, Zhao said smartphone makers currently have five months inventory to hand, so are working through that stockpile before ordering new product. Sales of PCs, consumer electronics and appliances are also in trouble, the CEO said, leaving some markets oversupplied with product for now. But unmet demand remains for silicon used for Wi-Fi 6, power conversion, green energy products, and analog-to-digital conversion.

    Zhao partly attributed sales slumps to the Ukraine war which has made the Russian market off limits to many vendors and effectively taken Ukraine's 44 million citizens out of the global market for non-essential purchases.

    Continue reading
  • Colocation consolidation: Analysts look at what's driving the feeding frenzy
    Sometimes a half-sized shipping container at the base of a cell tower is all you need

    Analysis Colocation facilities aren't just a place to drop a couple of servers anymore. Many are quickly becoming full-fledged infrastructure-as-a-service providers as they embrace new consumption-based models and place a stronger emphasis on networking and edge connectivity.

    But supporting the growing menagerie of value-added services takes a substantial footprint and an even larger customer base, a dynamic that's driven a wave of consolidation throughout the industry, analysts from Forrester Research and Gartner told The Register.

    "You can only provide those value-added services if you're big enough," Forrester research director Glenn O'Donnell said.

    Continue reading
  • D-Wave deploys first US-based Advantage quantum system
    For those that want to keep their data in the homeland

    Quantum computing outfit D-Wave Systems has announced availability of an Advantage quantum computer accessible via the cloud but physically located in the US, a key move for selling quantum services to American customers.

    D-Wave reported that the newly deployed system is the first of its Advantage line of quantum computers available via its Leap quantum cloud service that is physically located in the US, rather than operating out of D-Wave’s facilities in British Columbia.

    The new system is based at the University of Southern California, as part of the USC-Lockheed Martin Quantum Computing Center hosted at USC’s Information Sciences Institute, a factor that may encourage US organizations interested in evaluating quantum computing that are likely to want the assurance of accessing facilities based in the same country.

    Continue reading
  • Bosses using AI to hire candidates risk discriminating against disabled applicants
    US publishes technical guide to help organizations avoid violating Americans with Disabilities Act

    The Biden administration and Department of Justice have warned employers using AI software for recruitment purposes to take extra steps to support disabled job applicants or they risk violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

    Under the ADA, employers must provide adequate accommodations to all qualified disabled job seekers so they can fairly take part in the application process. But the increasing rollout of machine learning algorithms by companies in their hiring processes opens new possibilities that can disadvantage candidates with disabilities. 

    The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the DoJ published a new document this week, providing technical guidance to ensure companies don't violate ADA when using AI technology for recruitment purposes.

    Continue reading
  • How ICE became a $2.8b domestic surveillance agency
    Your US tax dollars at work

    The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has spent about $2.8 billion over the past 14 years on a massive surveillance "dragnet" that uses big data and facial-recognition technology to secretly spy on most Americans, according to a report from Georgetown Law's Center on Privacy and Technology.

    The research took two years and included "hundreds" of Freedom of Information Act requests, along with reviews of ICE's contracting and procurement records. It details how ICE surveillance spending jumped from about $71 million annually in 2008 to about $388 million per year as of 2021. The network it has purchased with this $2.8 billion means that "ICE now operates as a domestic surveillance agency" and its methods cross "legal and ethical lines," the report concludes.

    ICE did not respond to The Register's request for comment.

    Continue reading
  • Fully automated AI networks less than 5 years away, reckons Juniper CEO
    You robot kids, get off my LAN

    AI will completely automate the network within five years, Juniper CEO Rami Rahim boasted during the company’s Global Summit this week.

    “I truly believe that just as there is this need today for a self-driving automobile, the future is around a self-driving network where humans literally have to do nothing,” he said. “It's probably weird for people to hear the CEO of a networking company say that… but that's exactly what we should be wishing for.”

    Rahim believes AI-driven automation is the latest phase in computer networking’s evolution, which began with the rise of TCP/IP and the internet, was accelerated by faster and more efficient silicon, and then made manageable by advances in software.

    Continue reading
  • Pictured: Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way
    We speak to scientists involved in historic first snap – and no, this isn't the M87*

    Astronomers have captured a clear image of the gigantic supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy for the first time.

    Sagittarius A*, or Sgr A* for short, is 27,000 light-years from Earth. Scientists knew for a while there was a mysterious object in the constellation of Sagittarius emitting strong radio waves, though it wasn't really discovered until the 1970s. Although astronomers managed to characterize some of the object's properties, experts weren't quite sure what exactly they were looking at.

    Years later, in 2020, the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to a pair of scientists, who mathematically proved the object must be a supermassive black hole. Now, their work has been experimentally verified in the form of the first-ever snap of Sgr A*, captured by more than 300 researchers working across 80 institutions in the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration. 

    Continue reading
  • Shopping for malware: $260 gets you a password stealer. $90 for a crypto-miner...
    We take a look at low, low subscription prices – not that we want to give anyone any ideas

    A Tor-hidden website dubbed the Eternity Project is offering a toolkit of malware, including ransomware, worms, and – coming soon – distributed denial-of-service programs, at low prices.

    According to researchers at cyber-intelligence outfit Cyble, the Eternity site's operators also have a channel on Telegram, where they provide videos detailing features and functions of the Windows malware. Once bought, it's up to the buyer how victims' computers are infected; we'll leave that to your imagination.

    The Telegram channel has about 500 subscribers, Team Cyble documented this week. Once someone decides to purchase of one or more of Eternity's malware components, they have the option to customize the final binary executable for whatever crimes they want to commit.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022