Saturday 20th October 2018

Facebook’s API restrictions risk turning it into an ‘unaccountable black box’

Researchers and academics are increasingly struggling to pull data from Facebook. Consequently, they claim a divide is emerging between 'big data rich' and 'big data poor' researchers.
Jason Smith
by on 11th June 2018

The recent restrictions placed by Facebook on its APIs risk turning the social network into an “[unaccountable] black box” and incentivising researchers and academics to scrape the platform directly, according to a post published by City University.

Academics rely on Facebook to glean insights that help inform research into social behaviour, which City University states both lawmakers and the public benefit from.

The restrictions follow investigations into data acquired by Cambridge Analytica on 87 million Facebook users and their friends.

Some of the restrictions, announced in April of this year, include restrictions placed on its Groups, Pages and Events APIs. The restrictions limit the content that can be retrieved from or on Facebook users contributing to a public page or group.

The restrictions have also made it more difficult to operate tools and libraries like RFacebook, NodeXL and SocialMediaLab, all of which were utilized by researchers and academics to compile data on Facebook users through its APIs.

According to Dr. Marco Bastos from the Department of Sociology at City University, without APIs academics and researchers will have to resort to more intensive measures like scraping publicly available information.

Dr. Bastos goes onto claim that these measures will limit the amount of information that can be accessed and processed and will also make it more challenging to form representative samples.

A comparison can be made with Twitter’s API which he claims is more accessible and “vastly overrepresented in social media research.”

Dr. Bastos also outlines the potential for a knowledge gap between the “big data rich researchers” and “big data poor researchers,” which is characterised as the knowledge gap between researchers hired by social networks who he claims only operate in the interests of the company and academics without access to proprietary data.

He believes the restriction is likely to “continue the trend of researchers doing research they are able to as opposed to research they deem important.”

Facebook has been a target for criticism from a number of journalists, public officials and privacy campaigners in relation to the spread of what they claim is disinformation before, during and after the US election of 2016.

A sample of ads created by the Internet Research Agency was recently published by the House Intelligence Committee. According to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, the IRA spent upwards of $100,000 on Facebook ads on issues relating to US politics.

This contrasts with the combined $1.415 billion spent on digital advertising by the Clinton and Trump campaigns, according to Borrell Associates.

According to Dr. Bastos, locking down the APIs is a counter-intuitive approach to tackling the spread of disinformation.

“Restricting access to data is likely to facilitate further weaponisation, by turning Facebook into a de facto black box that is largely unaccountable to external oversight,” he says.