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Facebook locks down key data as researchers analyze Russian influence

The social network says it was only available because of a bug.

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The truth behind Facebook's involvement in Russian voter hacks continues to get more complicated. The social media company apparently knew about Russian meddling even before last year's US election. Mark Zuckerberg's company reported that 10 million people saw Russian political ads, and has handed over Russia-linked ads to Congress. According to a report in The Washington Post, however, Facebook recently scrubbed the internet of thousands of posts related to social media analyst Jonathan Albright's research that apparently concluded that at least twice as many people had seen the ads than Facebook reported.

Needless to say, the researcher is upset. "This is public interest data," Albright told the Post. "This data allowed us to at least reconstruct some of the pieces of the puzzle. Not everything, but it allowed us to make sense of some of this thing."

Facebook confirmed to The Washington Post that while the posts had been removed, it was due to a bug in its analytics tool CrowdTangle. According to the company, Albright should never have been able to see this information. When the "bug" was quashed, Facebook told the Post, advertisers (and analysts like Albright) could no longer see information from "cached" posts that had already been taken down on Facebook (and Instagram). "We identified and fixed a bug in CrowdTangle that allowed users to see cached information from inactive Facebook Pages," Facebook spokesman Andy Stone told the Post. "Across all our platforms we have privacy commitments to make inactive content that is no longer available, inaccessible."

It's hard not to see this as a convenient excuse to hide tens of millions of potentially damning data, of course, especially as COO Sheryl Sandberg has committed the company to transparency around the fake Russian ads. Social media analysis has become a large part of figuring out what happens in our society, and not allowing access to even "taken down" posts can seem alarming. We've reached out to Facebook for comment on this matter and will update the post when we hear back.

Update: A Facebook spokesperson provided the following statement.

  • Facebook is cooperating fully with federal investigations and are providing info to the relevant authorities.
  • We identified and fixed a bug in CrowdTangle that allowed users to see cached information from all inactive Facebook Pages. Across all our platforms we have privacy commitments to make all inactive content, that is no longer available, inaccessible. (please see details on Data Policy)
  • With this fix, the information from all Inactive Pages will now not be available
  • CrowdTangle has a feature called "Link Checker" that is available in the tool's dashboard and through a Chrome Extension. The feature allows users to see influential active social accounts that have shared a specific article or URL, as well as how many social interactions it has had.
  • Through CrowdTangle's "Link Checker" there was an unintended way to access information about deleted content. The most recent fix has made sure all information about content from Inactive Pages is unavailable, including through the Link Checker.
  • CrowdTangle had been using the publicly available Pages API to pull and cache information about Page content on its servers. When we discovered that this led to inactive information remaining, we had to fix the bug.

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