Facebook has raised the ire of human rights advocates and investigators after it killed off advanced features of a search tool used to surface information on posts, users and other elements of the social media site.
The tool, called Graph, is open to any of the site’s users and allows people to search all of Facebook’s public data using a set of highly granular filters.
Graph’s abilities include finding posts by a user that fall within a certain date range, identifying users who like a specific page and live in a specific city, or surfacing places users have visited as recorded by their check-ins and tags.
But key aspects of Graph, like being able to search videos to find a specific user, were suddenly taken down late last week, Vice reported, citing sources close to the situation.
The tool, which is far more advanced than the site’s regular search feature, made it a favorite of many groups looking to glean insight from Facebook.
While those included businesses looking to build databases of users, it also included human rights groups and investigative journalists.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, one human rights advocate said that gutting Graph could hamstring the efforts of groups using the tool to monitor war crimes and investigate abuses around the world.
‘To make it even more difficult for human rights actors and war crimes investigators to search that site — right as they’re realizing the utility of the rich trove of information being shared online for documenting abuses — is a potential disaster for the human rights and war crimes community,’ Alexa Koenig, the Executive Director of Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley told Buzfeed.
‘We need Facebook to be working with us and making access to such information easier, not more difficult.’
Using Facebook’s Graph search feature, human rights groups like Koenigs are able to document abuses as they happen in real-time.
Additionally, a newly formed Human Rights Investigation Lab at U.C. Berkeley has used the tools to capture social media posts attacking Rohingya and other Muslims in Myanmar, extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, and violence against protesters in Sudan.
In a statement, Facebook said that the features were merely ‘paused’ as it updates its regular search function.
‘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,’ a spokesperson told Vice and Buzzfeed.
‘We are working closely with researchers to make sure they have the tools they need to use our platform.’
Facebook reportedly crippled Graph Search without notifying users ahead of time and has also actively attempted to block users who have developed their own tools as a workaround.
Henk van Ess, an investigator and trainer with the investigative journalism outlet Bellingcat told BuzzFeed that Facebook has disabled his workarounds on five separate occasions after about two hours.
The changes to Facebook’s Graph Search come in the wake of several scandals regarding the social media giant’s handling of people’s personal and private information, including one involving the consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, which harvested personal information from tens of millions of users without consent.