‘Grave Step Backwards’: Meta Shuts Monitoring Tool In Election Year

CrowdTangle, a digital platform deemed critical in tracking viral lies, will be decommissioned by Facebook owner Meta during a significant election year, which experts fear would hinder efforts to identify an expected flood of political misinformation.

The software behemoth has announced that CrowdTangle will be inaccessible after August 14, fewer than three months before the US election. The Palo Alto corporation intends to replace it with a new tool that, according to researchers, lacks the same capability and will be inaccessible to most news organizations.

CrowdTangle has been a game changer for years, providing researchers and journalists with critical real-time insight on the spread of conspiracy theories and hate speech on key Meta-owned platforms such as Facebook and Instagram.

The removal of the monitoring tool, which experts say is consistent with a tech industry trend of reducing transparency and security safeguards, is a huge blow as dozens of nations face elections this year – a time when bad actors are more likely to promote false narratives.

In a year when elections are being held in dozens of nations that account for over half of the world’s population, “cutting off access to CrowdTangle will severely limit independent oversight of harms,” Melanie Smith, head of research at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told AFP.

“It represents a grave step backwards for social media platform transparency.”

Meta plans to replace CrowdTangle with a new Content Library, a system that is still in development.

It’s a tool that others in the tech industry, including former CrowdTangle CEO Brandon Silverman, believe isn’t an effective alternative right now, particularly in elections where AI-enabled falsehoods are likely to spread.

“It’s an entire new muscle” that Meta is yet to build to protect the integrity of elections, Silverman told AFP, calling for “openness and transparency.”

‘Direct threat’

CrowdTangle, according to academics, has detected negative behaviors such as foreign intervention, internet harassment, and encouragement to violence in recent election cycles.

Meta, which purchased CrowdTangle in 2016, admitted that the program assisted state officials in identifying falsehoods, such as erroneous poll hours posted online, during the 2019 Louisiana elections.

During the 2020 presidential election, the business provided the technology to US election officials in all states to help them “quickly identify misinformation, voter interference, and suppression.”

The program also provided dashboards for the public to monitor what key candidates were publishing on their official and campaign pages.

Lamenting the possibility of losing these functions permanently, the global nonprofit Mozilla Foundation asked in an open letter to Meta that CrowdTangle be kept at least until January 2025.

“Abandoning CrowdTangle while the Content Library lacks so much of CrowdTangle’s core functionality undermines the fundamental principle of transparency,” according to the letter signed by dozens of technology watchdogs and scholars.

The new technology lacks CrowdTangle characteristics such as robust search flexibility, and its discontinuation would pose a “direct threat” to election integrity, it claimed.

According to Meta spokesperson Andy Stone, the letter’s accusations are “just wrong,” and the Content Library will provide “more comprehensive data than CrowdTangle” to academics and non-profit election integrity specialists.

‘Lot of concerns’

Meta, which has been shifting away from news on its many platforms, would not make the new tool available to for-profit media.

Journalists have previously utilized CrowdTangle to examine public health emergencies, human rights violations, and natural disasters.

Meta’s move to block journalists came after several of them utilized CrowdTangle to publish negative articles about the company, such as its failing moderation attempts and how its gaming app was inundated with pirated content.

CrowdTangle has been an important source of data in “holding Meta accountable for enforcing its policies,” according to Tim Harper, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

The Content Library will be accessible to organizations who disprove misinformation as part of Meta’s third-party fact-checking initiative, such as AFP.

However, other scholars and non-profits will have to apply for access or seek even more expensive options. Two researchers told AFP, on the condition of anonymity, that in one-on-one talks with Meta officials, they requested explicit guarantees.

“While most fact-checkers already working with Meta will have access to the new tool, it’s not super clear if many independent researchers –- already worried about losing CrowdTangle’s functionality — will,” Carlos Hernandez-Echevarria, head of the Spanish nonprofit Maldita, told AFP.

“It has generated a lot of concerns.”

Leave a Reply