Facebook has quietly pushed out changes to News Feed that ‘interfere’ with the browser-based tools used by journalists and researchers, according to The comment, the non-profit news organization behind Citizen Browser.
According to the report, Facebook has added ‘junk code’ to HTML features designed to improve accessibility for visually impaired users. The resulting code prevents browsers from automatically collecting data on News Feed placements, and can also obstruct screen readers used by blind and visually impaired users.
The change affected both The markups Citizen Browser, as well as the Ad Observer of New York University, a browser extension that helped researchers study political ads and misinformation about vaccines. This type of browser-based tool has become for researchers trying to study issues like ad targets and misinformation. Researchers say that these tools, which allow users to make the posts from their feeds available to academics and journalists, are one of the only ways to access important data about how News Feed works.
Laura Edelson, lead researcher at NYU’s Cybersecurity for Democracy, which runs Ad Observer, said Facebook’s changes ‘had the effect of breaking Ad Observer’, although they could find a solution.
In a statement, a Facebook spokesman said the company was investigating the claims. “We are constantly making code changes in our services, but we have not made any recent code changes to block these research projects,” the spokesman said. “Our accessibility features appear to be largely normal, but we are investigating the alleged disruptions.”
The code change is the latest cleanup between Facebook and researchers who say Facebook has hampered their efforts to understand what is happening on its platform. Last month, the company shut down the personal Facebook accounts of NYU researchers working with Ad Observer, saying it violated the company’s privacy rules. (The FTC later Facebook because he made ‘misleading’ remarks about the reasons he took these actions.)
There are other implications for the changes. As The comment and Edelson points out that the changes could affect screen readers, a key accessibility technology. They cite at least one example of the code that causes a screen reader to read out some of these ‘junk’ characters. The changes may also have contributed to issues with some ad blockers.
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