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Meta Kills a Crucial Transparency Tool At the Worst Possible Time

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Meta Kills a Crucial Transparency Tool At the Worst Possible Time

Earlier this month, Meta announced that this would be the case Exit CrowdTangle, the social media monitoring and transparency tool that allows journalists and researchers to track the spread of mis- and disinformation. It will cease to function on August 14, 2024 – just months before the US presidential election.

Meta’s move is just the latest example of a tech company rolling back transparency and security measures as the world enters the biggest global election year in history. The company says it is replacing CrowdTangle with a new one Content library API, which requires researchers and nonprofits to request access to the company’s data. But the Mozilla Foundation and seventy other social organizations protested last week that the new offering lacks much of CrowdTangle’s functionality, prompting the company to keep the original tool operational until January 2025.

Meta spokesperson Andy Stone responded messages on X that the groups’ claims are “simply wrong,” saying the new Content Library will contain “more comprehensive data than CrowdTangle” and will be made available to nonprofits, academics and election integrity experts. But Meta did not respond to questions about why commercial newsrooms, like WIRED, should be excluded.

Brandon Silverman, co-founder and former CEO of CrowdTangle, who continued to work on the tool after Facebook acquired it in 2016, says it’s time to force platforms to open up their data to outsiders. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Vittoria Elliott: CrowdTangle has been incredibly important for journalists and researchers trying to hold tech companies accountable for the spread of mis- and disinformation. But it’s from Meta. Can you tell us something about that tension?

Brandon Silverman: I think there is a bit too much of a public story that there is frustration about (New York Times columnist) Tweets from Kevin Roose is why they turned their backs on CrowdTangle. I think the truth is that Facebook is completely disappearing from the news.

When CrowdTangle joined Facebook, they were all in on the news and bought us to help the news industry. Three years later they say, “We’re done with that project.” There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with hosting news on a platform, especially when you exist in virtually every community on earth. I think at some point they came to the conclusion that it just wasn’t worth what it would cost to do it responsibly.

My conclusion when I left was that if you want to do this work in a way that really serves civil society in the way that we need it to, you can’t do it within the corporations – and Meta did more than almost anyone else. It is very clear that we need our regulators and elected officials to decide what we, as a society, want and expect from these platforms, and to make these (requirements) legally mandatory.

What would that look like?

I think we’re at the beginning of a whole ecosystem of better tools that do this job. The European Union’s sweeping Digital Services Act imposes a number of transparency requirements on data sharing. One of these is sometimes called the CrowdTangle provision: it requires qualifying platforms to provide real-time access to public data.

More than a dozen platforms now have new programs that allow remote researchers to access real-time public content. Alibaba, TikTok and YouTube – which has always been a black box – are now driving these programs. It’s been very quiet because they don’t necessarily want a lot of people using them. In some cases, companies add these programs to their terms of service but don’t make a public announcement.

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