The human rights and war crimes community is up in arms over Facebook’s decision to turn off a set of advanced features in its graph search product, which is “a way to receive an answer to a specific query on Facebook, such as ‘people in Nebraska who like Metallica,'” reports BuzzFeed News. “Using graph search, it’s possible to find public — and only public — content that’s not easily accessed via keyword search.” The decision, which was not announced publicly, was likely made in an effort to limit data scandals and improve privacy. From the report: When Mark Zuckerberg personally introduced graph search in early 2013, he billed it as equal in importance to Facebook’s News Feed and profile timeline. On launch day, the company also published a post offering journalists tips on how to use graph search. Over the years, graph search became a valuable tool for investigators, police officers, and journalists. At the same time, social media became a key source for uncovering war crimes, disinformation campaigns, child exploitation, and other crimes and abuses.
The move raised even more concern in the human rights and investigative journalism communities because Facebook appeared to thwart attempts to find workarounds. Henk van Ess, an investigator and trainer who works with Bellingcat, operates a tool that uses graph search to enable powerful searches of public content. After Facebook turned off some searches, he was able to find workarounds — until the company blocked them. “I patched my tools 5 times and each time, after 2 hrs, the tools were crippled by FB,” he wrote in a Twitter direct message. “Other toolmakers experienced the same.” Van Ess now requires people to request permission from him to use his tool; he says he’s been flooded with requests from people pursuing investigations “involving human rights abuses, war crimes, terrorism, extremism, white collar crime … corruption, disinformation campaigns, environmental crimes, cybercrime — the list just keeps on going.” A Facebook spokesperson said in a statement to BuzzFeed News: “The vast majority of people on Facebook search using keywords, a factor which led us to pause some aspects of graph search and focus more on improving keyword search. We are working closely with researchers to make sure they have the tools they need to use our platform.”