Facebook shuts down research project looking into Instagram’s algorithm

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

There are billions of people around the world that use social media, with Facebook and Instagram being two of the biggest sites. Every single one of these billions of people has a personalised feed that’s adjusted to their particular browsing tastes. How is that possible? It’s not that there is a team of people locked away somewhere, frantically trying to get tailored content out to people’s feeds. A person’s social media feed is based on algorithmic decisions made by a computer.

Considering the scale of people that use these social media sites, the amount of these people that get a lot of their news from them, and the way these feeds shape their digital lives, the decisions these algorithms make are really quite important.

This is why AlgorithmWatch was running a project on the algorithm Instagram uses. However, AlgorithmWatch has announced that they had to shut down this project because Facebook threatened legal action against them. However, Facebook countered this story by saying that AlgorithmWatch was breaking its rules and it didn’t threaten the group.

Who are AlgorithmWatch?

AlgorithmWatch is a non-profit research group, their goal is to analyse and evaluate algorithmic decision-making processes that have an impact on society. On their website they describe this as meaning, ‘they are used either to predict or prescribe human action or to make decisions automatically.’ Essentially, they are a research group that tries to hold the social media networks accountable for the decisions their algorithm makes for people.

As part of their mission statement they write, ‘The more technology develops, the more complex it becomes. AlgorithmWatch believes that complexity must not mean incomprehensibility’. As part of this they analyse the algorithms and point out areas where ethical conflicts could occur.

In a blog post on the Algorithm Watch website released on the 13th of August 2021, they outline their side of the events.

What was the AlgorithmWatch research project?

Over 14 months, 15,000 volunteers installed an add-on created by AlgorithmWatch. With the information and data that was collected from these volunteers’ use of the platform, they were able to analyse the way the Instagram feed curated content for people.

Once they had findings from the research, Algorithm watch approached facebook for comments before they went to publication. However Facebook didn’t respond to the questions, instead AlgorithmWatch explain that Facebook told them that their research was flawed and that they, ‘found a number of issues with [our] methodology". They did not list the flaws and issues in question, but we assumed that they carried out a thorough review of our methods and tools prior to issuing such strong statements.’

Following this, a year later, Facebook asked AlgorithmWatch for a meeting, in which they said that the project ‘breached their Terms of Service, which prohibit the automated collection of data.’ Because of this they would have to, ‘mov[e] to more formal engagement’ if the project didn’t stop. AlgorithmWatch took this as a threat that legal action could result if they continued their work. 

In Facebook’s terms of service they have a section that states a person, ‘may not access or collect data from [Facebook’s products] using automated means.’ Algorithm watch counter this by saying that, ‘we only collected data related to content that Facebook displayed to the volunteers who installed the add-on. In other words, users of the plug-in were only accessing their own feed, and sharing it with us for research purposes.’

Lastly, Facebook claimed that the AlgorithmWatch project broke GDPR rules because elements of the data came from users that didn’t agree to the project, for example, people whose pictures came up in a volunteer’s timeline. But if analysing the source code for the add-on these pieces of data were immediately deleted and not used in the project.

Despite the huge amount of work that had gone into the project, the fear of legal action against such a powerful company forced AlgorithmWatch to shut down its project and delete the data it had collected.

It is a difficult situation to navigate, particularly after the Cambridge Analytica scandal that took place in 2018. Because of this Mark Zuckerberg had to go before the congress in the US and testify over Facebook’s data privacy policies. So there is a strong reason why Facebook is closely monitoring the data collection on its website, while the AlgorithmWatch project is doing respectable work, there are other companies who could operate in a more shady manner with the data.