A research group that has been investigating the manipulation of algorithms by Instagram was forced to shut down its research after legal threats from Facebook, according to Breitbart.
The Germany-based group, AlgorithmWatch, was investigating how Instagram favors certain types of content over others, and thus promotes them more heavily on users’ timelines. The group had been utilizing a browser extension that specializes in collecting data from users’ Instagram feeds in order to determine certain trends.
Among other findings, AlgorithmWatch determined that Instagram, a photo-sharing website, more heavily prioritizes images that include faces rather than just text. In May, representatives from Facebook, which owns Instagram, requested a meeting with the project’s leaders; during that meeting, Facebook accused the group, without any evidence, of violating Instagram’s terms of service. They also claimed that the investigation was in violation of the European Union’s GDPR data laws, since the project was allegedly collecting user data without the consent of the users.
The researchers countered by pointing out that they had “only collected data related to content that Facebook displayed to the volunteers who installed the add-on. In other words, users of the plug-in were only accessing their own feed, and sharing it with us for research purposes.” Nevertheless, according to AlgorithmWatch, Facebook threatened legal action if the project was not shut down. Facebook released a statement denying that any such action was threatened.
AlgorithmWatch is not the only such research project to be strong-armed into shutting down by Facebook. Earlier this month, Facebook banned the personal accounts of researchers with New York University’s Ad Observatory, which was investigating misinformation and ad transparency on the platform, once again claiming that the researchers had violated Facebook’s terms of service. The researchers claimed that the bans were indeed retaliation for exposing problems with Facebook’s advertising system and content moderation. Even the Federal Trade Commission got involved in the matter, releasing a statement saying that Facebook could not “use privacy [as] a pretext to advance other aims.”