Cameron Hickey, director of the Algorithmic Transparency Institute at the National Conference on Citizenship, said his group is currently in the process of putting together a comprehensive monitoring list of every candidate on the ballot in 2022 — and that this list, which thousands of voter advocate volunteers nationwide have access to, lives on CrowdTangle. Meanwhile, Facebook has kept CrowdTangle closed off to groups dedicated to fighting misinformation on new charged topics in the news, such as advocacy groups that want to combat abortion misinformation on the verge of a major Supreme Court ruling that may overturn Roe v. Wade, he said.
“For a transparency and research tool, Facebook is not adding needed enhancements that would benefit the research and transparency community,” Hickey said. He cited long-standing bugs on the platform and missing features, such as the ability to filter for posts that have already been fact-checked by Facebook.
Meta said that when it is made aware of a potential issue on CrowdTangle, it addresses it as quickly as possible. It added that the company provides another dedicated tool for its third-party fact checkers to comb through its social media apps and label content that may be misleading.
Brandon Silverman, the former CEO of CrowdTangle, said that the research community the team worked with had long seen how impactful data sharing was, but that CrowdTangle had “struggled” with how to tell that story broadly, including inside Meta. “Over the last few months, I think that has started to shift,” he said in an interview. “There’s an increased recognition that getting to some baseline transparency has to be one of the first steps forward.”
The company has attempted to promote its other transparency reports, such as the Widely Viewed Content report it distributes every quarter, which was originally rolled out as a rebuttal to CrowdTangle data suggesting far-right personalities consistently dominate the platform. But researchers say a polished report from Meta isn’t as revealing as a tool they can use to ask their own questions. The company shelved the first content report it compiled when Facebook executives, including Alex Schultz, the company’s chief marketing officer, debated whether it would cause a public relations problem, according to the New York Times.
Most likely, insiders say, Facebook will roll out a tool that mimics some of the features of CrowdTangle without giving users full access to its original capabilities. The company has assigned its data transparency team to work on a replacement tool in a privacy-safe way, it said. So far, its efforts fall short, researchers say. Those who have access to a separate post-searching tool for academic research say it’s much less user-friendly. Buntain, the researcher at University of Maryland, said that researchers who want to use it must know how to code to extract analysis from the data set, and that academics don’t have insight into how Meta compiles the data it provides.
In fact, researchers previously caught a mistake by Facebook when they found a discrepancy between the data it provided to its research community and the data it released publicly through its Widely Viewed Content report. The data provided to the researchers had left out about half of Facebook’s US users—the ones who engaged with political pages enough to make their political leanings clear. That incident showed “the value of multiple points of view into data,” Buntain said.
CrowdTangle is unmatched in “its usability, the speed with which you can get insights, and the ease with which you can get insights,” Buntain added. “That can't be overstated.”