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Dozens of Facebook posts from days before and after the January 6 riots on Capitol Hill in Washington have disappeared.

The posts have disappeared from Crowdtangle, a Facebook-owned tool that allows researchers to track what people are saying on the platform, according to academics at New York University and Université Grenoble Alpes.

The lost messages – from harmless personal updates to potential incitement to violence to mainstream news articles – have not been available in Facebook’s transparency system since at least May 2021. The company told POLITICO that they had been accidentally deleted from Crowdtangle due to a limit on how Facebook allows access to data through its technical transparency tools. He said the error had now been corrected.

Facebook did not close the significant gap in its Crowdtangle data until it was contacted by POLITICO, despite continued pressure from policy makers on the company’s role in delivering messages, posts and advertising. videos about the violent insurgency, which killed five people. U.S. lawmakers on Friday ordered the company to turn over a host of internal riot documents and data, including details of the spread of disinformation, which targeted the U.S. presidential election.

It’s unclear how many messages Crowdtangle is still missing, when they’ll be restored, and whether the issue is only affecting US content or the material of all of Facebook’s 2.4 billion users around the world. Academics who discovered the problem estimate that tens of thousands of Facebook posts are currently missing.

“If Facebook knew about this and didn’t tell anyone about it, I think researchers should be quite concerned about this fact,” Laura Edelson, an academic at NYU and a member of the team that found the missing data. Edelson is in an ongoing battle with Facebook over a separate research project into political ads displayed in feeds – a project the company says violates its privacy policy.

Battle of transparency

The failure to disclose lost messages, which was due to a technical error, comes at a difficult time for Facebook and its efforts to promote transparency around what people see within its network.

After an internal battle, the company is dismantling the Crowdtangle team after researchers and journalists repeatedly used the tool to track how widely far-right, extremist and bogus content circulated on Facebook and Instagram. The tech giant also released its own report this month on most viewed content in the second quarter of this year, mainly highlighting viral spam and links to mainstream sites like YouTube.

But after the New York Times received details of the most viewed posts for the first three months of the year, Facebook was forced to release similar statistics for that period. They showed that disinformation around COVID-19 is still among the site’s most popular content despite the company’s efforts to quell it.

The latest episode highlights long-standing concerns about transparency on Facebook.

“The researchers assume that they are getting all of the public content from the Facebook pages indexed by Crowdtangle,” Edelson said. “These assumptions have been violated in this case.”

In response to POLITICO, Facebook said it has now fixed Crowdtangle’s missing data error and that all original posts are still available directly through Facebook. A spokesperson also said that about 80% of the missing messages reported by researchers at NYU and Université Grenoble Alpes should not have been available on Crowdtangle, either because they were subsequently deleted or made private. by Facebook users. She declined to comment on the number of posts, in total, that had disappeared from the Crowdtangle. Platform.

“We appreciate the researchers who brought these articles to our attention,” said the Facebook spokesperson.

“Something was clearly wrong”

The researchers first discovered the missing posts after comparing two versions of a Crowdtangle database of Facebook content produced by US media between September 2020 and January 2021.

After the Capitol Hill riots, academics said they planned to analyze the type of content Facebook had removed in connection with the insurgency to comply with its content moderation policies. But they quickly discovered that up to 30% of the messages collected in the weeks around the January 6 riots – approximately December 28, 2020 to January 11, 2021 – from the second Crowdtangle database were missing from the original. .

“We missed tens of thousands of messages. We knew something clearly was wrong,” Edelson said. “We were able to find some of the posts that we couldn’t find on Crowdtangle, but we could see that they were still available on Facebook. That’s when we knew, OK, what n ‘t is not us, there is some kind of real bug here. “

It is not clear how extensive the problem with Crowdtangle data is.

Facebook did not comment on the number of posts missing from the system, and POLITICO’s review of academics’ work found that less than half of the roughly 50,000 missing posts were currently available through the transparency tool. The remaining Facebook content was no longer accessible, either because it had been deleted or made private on the global platform, and therefore was not automatically collected on Crowdtangle.

Academics reported the issue to Facebook on August 3 – hours before the company suspended Edelson and the accounts of two other researchers, including their access to Crowdtangle, for their separate work around political advertisements.

The researchers said they had not heard from the company about the missing data, although academics, journalists and policymakers continue to use the transparency tool to try to find out what is happening. happened during the Capitol Hill riots.

“Obviously, my situation with Facebook is not ideal. But I think that even leaving aside the questions of who has permission to access Crowdtangle data and other forms of transparency data from Facebook, I think at this point Facebook has lost a tremendous amount of credibility, “Edelson says. “And I don’t really know how they’re going to get it back.”

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