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Meta to shutter key disinformation tracking tool before 2024 election

Meta’s decision to close its CrowdTangle division — a tool that tracks content across social media — has raised the ire of more than 100 research and advocacy groups who say it will make it harder to fight disinformation.

Groups including the Mozilla Foundation, the Center for Democracy and Technology and Access Now sent the social media behemoth an open letter Thursday decrying the decision to shutter the unit in August, asking Meta to, at a minimum, invest in CrowdTangle through January. Meta announced it would close CrowdTangle last week.

The letter points out that this year “approximately half the world’s population will vote” and says that the absence of the CrowdTangle tool will undermine the monitoring of election disinformation.

“Meta’s decision will effectively prohibit the outside world, including election integrity experts, from seeing what’s happening on Facebook and Instagram — during the biggest election year on record,” the letter said. 

Major elections in the United States, Brazil and Australia are among the looming contests, and Meta has not announced a similar replacement for the service, which it bought in 2016.

CrowdTangle, which allows journalists, researchers and election observers to monitor the spread of false content across Meta platforms, has been a thorn in the social media giant’s side as negative stories about Meta’s Instagram and Facebook platforms have emerged from its disinformation tracking capabilities. 

Meta has been reducing its investment in CrowdTangle over time, the letter said.

“Meta’s decision will effectively prohibit the outside world, including election integrity experts, from seeing what’s happening on Facebook and Instagram — during the biggest election year on record,” the letter said.

It added that as a result “almost all outside efforts to identify and prevent political disinformation, incitements to violence, and online harassment of women and minorities will be silenced,” the letter said, calling the closure of the service a “direct threat to our ability to safeguard the integrity of elections.”

Meta recently opened what it calls its Meta Content Library & Content Library API, which it has said shares “useful, high-quality data to researchers” and “was designed to help us meet new regulatory requirements for data-sharing and transparency while meeting Meta’s rigorous privacy and security standards.”

A Meta spokesperson called the claims in the Mozilla letter “just wrong.” He pointed to a company blog post addressing the changes last week.

The Meta Content Library is “designed to contain more comprehensive data than CrowdTangle (for instance, comments as a data type are coming in April),” the spokesperson said via email.

He added that academic and nonprofit institutions “pursuing scientific or public interest research can apply for access. This includes non-profit election integrity experts.”

In addition to asking Meta to delay its closure of CrowdTangle, the letter calls on Meta to quickly fold all current CrowdTangle organizations focused on election integrity into the new library and routinely consult the existing CrowdTangle community to verify that the incipient content library is adequate.

“As soon as possible, both the Content Library and CrowdTangle should add data about any election-related labels that are attached to public content by Meta, especially fact-checking and voter-interference,” the letter said.

It called CrowdTangle a long-standing resource maintaining “industry best practice for real-time platform transparency.”

CrowdTangle has become a “lifeline for understanding how disinformation, hate speech, and voter suppression spread on Facebook, undermining civic discourse and democracy,” the letter said. 

The letter said CrowdTangle’s dashboard has made it easier for advocates and researchers to assess and track in real-time how public content spreads and is engaged with on Facebook and Instagram.

“This in turn helped Meta identify harmful trends and abuse on its platforms,” the letter said.

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Suzanne Smalley

Suzanne Smalley

is a reporter covering privacy, disinformation and cybersecurity policy for The Record. She was previously a cybersecurity reporter at CyberScoop and Reuters. Earlier in her career Suzanne covered the Boston Police Department for the Boston Globe and two presidential campaign cycles for Newsweek. She lives in Washington with her husband and three children.