Where some see data suppression, Facebook says it was only following privacy policy

An article appearing in the Washington Post about Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election says Facebook “scrubbed” thousands of organic posts associated with accounts used by Russian operatives. The implication is that Facebook is suppressing information to avoid further embarrassment or negative PR.

Facebook told Marketing Land that the Post article doesn’t reflect what actually happened. The company explained it “is cooperating fully with federal investigations and providing info to the relevant authorities.”

I spoke at some length with a Facebook spokesperson on the record and on background. CrowdTangle was the tool used to unearth the disputed posts. The browser plug-in was acquired by Facebook in roughly November 2016.

I was also told by Facebook that the accounts in question were all “inactive,” which means they were either deleted or deactivated by the Page administrator or in some way violated Facebook’s terms of service and deactivated by the company.

Facebook’s privacy policy requires that inactive or deleted accounts be removed from public access or view. According to the company, the inactive accounts and their related posts should not have been accessible at all – anywhere — regardless of their content. However CrowdTangle was able to discover and retrieve cached pages from these inactive accounts.

The problem was characterized by Facebook as a “bug.” It was more like an inconsistency between Facebook’s privacy policy and what CrowdTangle could access. That inconsistency was not uncovered, Facebook says, until the inactive account posts were discovered by social media analyst Jonathan Albright.

Admittedly Facebook’s explanation has a dubious quality about it. But the company says there’s no attempt here to suppress or conceal information. Rather it was seeking to comply with its own privacy policies.

Here’s the official statement provided by Facebook’s spokesperson:

We identified and fixed a bug in CrowdTangle that allowed users to see cached information from all inactive Facebook Pages. Across all our platforms we have privacy commitments to make all inactive content, that is no longer available, inaccessible. With this fix, the information from all Inactive Pages will now not be available.

Facebook also indicated to me one reason the CrowdTangle “bug” had not previously been discovered is because the tool is rarely used to look for historical information. Most marketers and journalists use it for real-time information and content discovery.

In terms of any concerns this might trigger for marketers, there should be none. The posts in question were from inactive accounts and Facebook says that there are no data removals or purges for active accounts.