After being fined for fraudulent ads, Meta tries to discredit researchers

Meta has received backlash after trying to discredit researchers who identified fraudulent ads on its platforms as “unable to produce technical evidence.”

Meta's lawyers called researchers from NetLab, a research group affiliated with one of Brazil's top universities – Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) – "biased" and "unable to produce technical evidence."

The accusation comes as part of the company's defense in an ongoing case in Brazil. The country’s federal watchdog for consumer issues, Senacon, sued the tech giant in November 2023 for failures in ad moderation on the company’s main platforms, Facebook and Instagram.

The legal action was based on NetLab's findings, which indicated that Meta did not take down 1817 paid ads containing scams.

The fraudulent ads used the name of a popular government program to assist indebted individuals, called Desenrola, and kept running even after months after official notification.

The formal document, obtained by journalists at Brazilian tech news outlet Nucleo, describes Netlab as a “partial third party” and questions its ability for neutrality.

Accusation of bias

Meta accused NetLab's report of containing “a series of imperfections, biased responses, distorted conclusions, and reliability that is, at best, dubious.”

However, the company failed to specify what the alleged errors were.

“Netlab has an institutional political opinion that is manifestly opposed to Facebook Brazil [Meta's legal name in Brazil],” the company argued.

“And not only that: the coordinator of the laboratory herself, Professor Rose Marie Santini, has publicly expressed strong criticisms of digital platforms,” the document reads.

One of Meta's attempts to undermine the group is to argue that NetLab's report lacked links to each of the ads it identified as fraudulent.

Apparently, the researchers shared the URLs and IDs of each ad with Nucleo reporters.

"This is a strategy to make us work for them, given that they have already made money from an ad, and this request transfers to us the responsibility of cleaning up their platform," said Santini to Nucleo.

Meta condemned by activists

Meta’s actions have been condemned by activists. 70 organizations, research centers, digital rights watchdogs, and think tanks have signed a note of repudiation.

"This is an attack on scientific research work and attempts to intimidate researchers who are carrying out excellent work in the production of knowledge based on empirical analyses that have been fundamental in qualifying the public debate on platform accountability,” they stated in the note.

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