Was Facebook Fooled by the Russians, or Did It Know All Along?
Facebook’s political troubles do not appear to be anywhere near ending, despite mea culpas by founder Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg that the global social media giant now recognizes its platform was used by Russian troll accounts to influence the 2016 election and its automated advertising platform can be gamed to foment racist messaging.
The past two weeks' media revelations about how, as one New York Times piece put it, Zuckerberg created a 21st-century Frankenstein, a behemoth he cannot control, read like a screenplay from the latest Netflix political thriller. Last weekend, the Washington Post reported that Facebook discovered a Russian-based operation “as it was getting underway” in June 2016, using its platform to spread anti-Democratic Party propaganda. Facebook alerted the FBI. After Facebook traced “a series of shadowy accounts” that were promoting the stolen emails and other Democratic campaign documents, it “once again contacted the FBI.”
But Facebook “did not find clear evidence of Russian disinformation or ad purchases by Russian-linked accounts,” the Post reported. “Nor did any U.S. law enforcement or intelligence officials visit the company to lay out what they knew.” Instead, it was preoccupied with a rash of highly propagandistic partisan pages, both left and right, that came out of nowhere in 2016, the Post reported. These websites stole content from real news sites and twisted it into incendiary claims, drawing readers and shares that exploited Facebook's royalty-producing business model. “The company found that most of the groups behind the problematic pages had clear financial motives, which suggested that they weren’t working for a foreign government,” the Post said.
This messaging fog prompted Zuckerberg to say it was “crazy” for anyone to suggest that fake news on Facebook played a role in Trump’s electoral victory and the GOP triumph. The Post’s biggest scoop—after noting that Facebook was telling federal agencies during the election about Russian trolling activities, even if it misread them—was President Obama pulling Zuckerberg aside at an international conference, where “Obama made a personal appeal to Zuckerberg to take the threat of fake news and political disinformation seriously... [or] it would only get worse in the next presidential race.”
The Post’s account is a remarkable example of Washington-based reporting. Sources inside Facebook, law enforcement and intelligence agencies are saying that they held in their hands the dots that are only being connected today—much like the federal agents who were tracking some of the 9/11 hijackers before the terrorist attack. Facebook has since changed its tune, giving special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia-Trump campaign collusion and congressional inquests 3,000 Facebook ads placed by one Russian front group. Zuckerberg also issued an online video last week, in which he said, “I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy,” and pledged Facebook would now disclose the names of businesses that place political ads.
Meanwhile, after ProPublica this month reported it could use Facebook’s automated ad placement service to target people describing themselves as “Jew haters” or who used terms like “how to burn Jews,” Sandberg announced the colossus had badly erred, and would revamp its ad filtering and targeting system. “The fact that hateful terms were even offered as options was totally inappropriate and a fail on our part,” she said. “Hate has no place on Facebook, and as a Jew, as a mother and as a human being, I know the damage that can come from hate.”
But even as Zuckerberg makes public commitments about supporting American democracy, and Sandberg makes heartfelt declarations against enabling hate, top technology writers and editorial pages aren’t quite buying Facebook’s mea culpas. The most sympathetic pieces say there was no willful malice on Facebook's part. They add that when Facebook asked the feds to help them figure out the Russia puzzle, they were met with silence from federal law enforcement agencies. That deer-in-the-headlights narrative has led to characterizing its trials as “Facebook’s Frankenstein moment.” As New York Times business writer Kevin Roose quoted a former Facebook advertising executive, “The reality is that if you’re at the help of a machine that has two billion screaming, whiny humans, it’s basically impossible to predict each and every nefarious use case… It’s a whack-a-mole problem.”
The Times editorial page was less forgiving, calling Zuckerberg and Sandberg’s awakening “belated,” noting that Facebook has opposed federal regulation of online political messaging, and that Zuckerberg’s remedy of disclosing names of businesses that place ads is easily evaded by campaign operatives. “Disclosing the name of Facebook business accounts placing political ads, for instance, will be of little value if purchasers can disguise their real identity—calling themselves, say, Americans for Motherhood and Apple Pie,” the Times said. “Further, even if Facebook succeeds in driving away foreign propaganda, the same material could pop up on Twitter or other social media sites.”
Actually, the Post reported that Facebook has recently deployed software that was able to “disable 30,000 fake accounts” in May's French national election, and that software was successfully used last weekend in Germany’s national election. That disclosure by the Post, and other investigative reporting by the Times about how Facebook has worked with foreign governments to censor posts by critics and posted pro-regime propaganda, suggests Facebook is not quite the innocent bystander it professes to be.
The Times ran an extensive piece on how Facebook’s future lies with finding hundreds of millions of new users overseas, including in countries where governments want to control the media. Part of trying to access markets like China, where Facebook has been banned, include allowing Chinese state media outlets to buy pro-government ads targeting Facebook's Hong Kong users. In other words, its ad sales business model has looked past political propaganda to cash in, which Russia adroitly exploited in 2016. Of course, there is a double-standard here. Russia was using Facebook to aim at U.S. elections, upsetting America’s political establishment; whereas when China and other nations used Facebook for political purposes, it's apparently okay.
Last week Jim Rutenberg, the Times' “Mediator” columnist, wrote there’s a veritable mountain of detail that still has not been made public by Facebook concerning 2016’s election. This goes far beyond releasing the 3,000 ads bought by a single Russian troll account it shared with Mueller and congressional committees. So far, we know the ads amplified “divisive social and political messages,” that the users who bought the ads were fabricated, and that some ads targeted specific states and voter segments. But what we don’t know, Rutenberg noted, is what those ads looked like, what they specifically said, whose accounts sent them, how many people saw and shared them, which states and counties were targeted, and what actions the ads urged people to take. The Daily Beast reported that at least one ad organized an anti-refugee rally in Idaho, and another report said Russian trolls promoted 17 Trump rallies in Florida.
On Monday afternoon, the Post reported it had spoken to congressional sources familiar with the contents of the 3,000 ads, who said they used references to groups like Black Lives Matter to incite different blocs of voters. "The Russian campaign—taking advantage of Facebook’s ability to simultaneously send contrary messages to different groups of users based on their political and demographic characteristics—also sought to sow discord among religious groups. Other ads highlighted support for Democrat Hillary Clinton among Muslim women," the Post said.
For these reasons and others, Facebook’s political troubles do not appear to be ending soon. Predictably, some Democratic lawmakers are saying it’s time to require anyone who buys an online political ad to disclose it. But that notion, apart from going nowhere in a GOP-majority Congress, only scratches the surface of what’s going on. Campaign finance laws have proven to be utterly incapable of stopping so-called dark money in recent years, such as front groups created by the Koch brothers or state chambers of commerce. These laws can only regulate explicit political speech, such as ads telling people to vote for or against a certain candidate. How are they going to prevent innuendo-filled messaging, from fake messengers, on a deregulated internet?
Companies like Facebook, which track and parse the behavior of multi-millions of Americans online and sell ads based on those metrics, have embraced all the benefits of its business model. But they have avoided taking the lead to prevent nefarious uses of their platforms, until they're shamed in public, such as ProPublica’s recent outing of Facebook’s automated ad platform that can be gamed by anti-Semites, or disclosures like the Post report that Obama tried to give Zuckerberg a wakeup call last November.
Internet “companies act as if they own our data. There’s no reason why that should be the case…That data is an x-ray of our soul,” Franklin Foer, author of the new book, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, told KQED-FM in San Francisco on Monday. But these companies aren’t regulated in the U.S. The firms own vast files on virtually anyone who is likely to vote, let alone shop. And their automated systems rolled out the red carpet to anyone seeking to target 2016’s voters, from the presidential campaigns to Russian trolls.