In Twitter’s statement on Russian meddling in last year’s elections, it mentioned that Facebook had shared with it data on the accounts it had previously reported, and it now appears Facebook has shared similar data with Google as well, as it investigates its own role in all of this. The three companies have been the main focus – so far – of US congressional investigations into the use of online advertising and platforms to influence the outcome of last year’s elections, so it’s natural that the companies would share whatever data they have with each other. Twitter, though, was reprimanded (rightly or wrongly) by at least two members of Congress this week over seemingly relying too heavily on Facebook’s prior work rather than performing its own extensive search of past activity, and it seems Google is doing rather more of its own digging, though there’s no word so far on what it’s found. Both Google and Facebook have been widely criticized over their roles in allowing problematic activities to take place on their platforms, but I continue to argue that the cost of policing such activity at such a level as to eliminate it 100% would be disproportionately expensive in time and money.
Following Facebook’s public statement about Russian interference in the US elections last week, Twitter has now made a similar statement addressing both that specific issue and broader issues around political meddling, the use of bots on Twitter, and spam and other misuses of its platform. It appears Twitter found some of the same Russian-linked accounts which bought ads on Facebook in 2016 on its own platform, though they didn’t buy ads, while government-linked news outlet Russia Today bought over $200,000 worth of ads in 2016 including some that related directly to elections. Bots continue to be a big problem on Twitter, though one the company claims it’s getting better at managing. Twitter’s head of public policy spoke to the Senate committee investigating Russian influence this morning, and Twitter has promised to disclose more about these activities going forward as well as supporting efforts to increase regulation and transparency around election advertising, something Facebook has also said it supports. In the grand scheme of things, the actual activity discovered and reported by both platforms from an ad spending perspective continues to be very small, but that it’s happened at all in the overall context of an increasingly clear pattern of election manipulation by the Russian government and its surrogates is obviously concerning.
Update: Recode reports that at least one Senator, Democrat Mark Warner, says that Twitter’s presentation before his committee today was inadequate, lacking in detail, and seemed overly derivative based on Facebook’s investigation rather than its own work (the latter goes against the sense you get from reading Twitter’s own post on this, for what it’s worth).
Facebook has provided an update on its efforts to prevent interference in the recent federal elections in Germany, and says that in the month before the election it removed tens of thousands of fake accounts in Germany (it had previously said something similar about the recent French elections). But Facebook’s post also tries to make clear a distinction which has often been lost in the context of Facebook’s influence on elections: that its algorithms and the way it treats news and other posts have not swayed elections, while its official and transparent tools for politicians and political parties absolutely have had multiple effects. That’s a theme in the post, in which Facebook talks about politicians using the platform to reach voters and a variety of tools the company set up to help voters understand the issues and so on, much as it has promoted voting and information about candidates and their policy positions in the US. I frequently see Twitter posts which suggest that Facebook claims not to influence elections at all, but that’s misleading – its point is that it has transparent and official tools for politicians and parties to legitimately influence voters, while it’s doing its best to crack down on illegitimate uses of its platforms for those purposes. However, this post reiterates a point from Mark Zuckerberg’s brief speech last week on the topic – that Facebook will never be perfect at this, and its goal is to make it harder to mislead through the platform.
Update/Related: Mark Zuckerberg later today posted about President Trump’s critical tweet this morning with more of the same message and something of an apology for his initial reaction to criticisms of Facebook’s role in the election.
There were at least three separate articles today highlighting the way in which Facebook is increasingly embroiled in a messy set of political stories. The Washington Post reported that President Obama was instrumental late last year in convincing CEO Mark Zuckerberg to take the social network’s role in the election more seriously, and later reported that the ads which have been in the news for the last few weeks were sophisticated attempts to sow division over issues like the Black Lives Matter movement. BuzzFeed, meanwhile, reported that Steve Bannon at one point tried to plant a mole at Facebook, in an attempt to gain insight into its hiring process. Try as it might to extricate itself from this political quagmire, it seems there is little Facebook can do at the moment to escape it, as it keeps getting sucked deeper in. Clearly no-one at Facebook was involved in the Bannon effort, but it highlights the tensions between the political faction currently running the US government and Silicon Valley, while the other stories suggest Facebook was used unwittingly as a tool by foreign operatives looking to influence the election. That could be either exonerating or damning, depending on how you look at it – on the one hand, it suggests Zuckerberg’s original blasé attitude towards political influence on Facebook was genuine, but on the other it suggests no-one at Facebook took it seriously enough while the campaign was still ongoing to discover things that have only come to light more recently. I hope that as part of the changes announced last week, Facebook is now attempting to ferret out this type of activity more methodically, but as with so many things Facebook-related, it’s impossible to know for sure because of the general opaqueness of the way Facebook operates.
Mark Zuckerberg’s first big action on returning from paternity leave today was to make a statement via his company’s live platform about the ongoing issue of Russian ad buying to influence last year’s US presidential election and related issues, the text of which has now been posted to Zuckerberg’s Facebook page. The key news from the statement is that Facebook will make the ads in question available to the US Congress, something that it had previously not done out of concern for violating privacy laws. But Zuckerberg also addressed the broader issue of Facebook’s use as a tool to meddle in elections. To my mind, he was refreshingly honest in conceding that Facebook was never going to be able to eliminate this behavior, and would focus instead on the more realistic goal of making it harder. He promised to continue investigating what happened during the election last year and share as much as possible about the findings. He announced a change to how political ads are displayed on Facebook, making it clear which entities are showing ads to which users at any given point in time, something it had previously resisted doing, ostensibly again out of privacy concerns.
There are several other elements to today’s statement which are worth reading in full, but the key takeaway is that Facebook is taking the issues seriously and responding to them in a variety of ways. One of the most notable lines in the statement, though, is this: “We don’t check what people say before they say it, and frankly, I don’t think our society shouldn’t want us to. Freedom means you don’t have to ask permission first, and that by default you can say what you want.” That’s always been Facebook’s default position, and I think it’s the right one – the minute it gets into policing which content is and isn’t acceptable ahead of time, it’s in an increasingly powerful and dangerous role, and it has a sometimes poor track record of making those calls. (A current example is its banning of the Rohingya insurgent group in Myanmar, which is at the very least a highly political decision in light of the ongoing actions of the Burmese government.) My feeling is that election meddling and many other issues facing Facebook – including the recent problems with ad targeting – are 99.9% problems: in other words, if Facebook can stop 99.9% (or some other very large percentage) of that activity from happening, that should be good enough, because trying to solve 100% of them is likely to involve far more work and cost both in financial and freedom of speech terms than it’s worth.
Facebook’s new ‘Town Hall’ feature helps you find and contact your government reps – TechCrunch (Mar 15, 2017)
This Town Hall feature from Facebook feels like a natural outgrowth of some of the things Mark Zuckerberg talked about in his recent manifesto. My big worry about that manifesto was that, while it acknowledged some of the problems that had grown out of Facebook’s increasing power over our lives, it seemed to think the solution was more Facebook, not less of it. This tool, for now, looks like a positive step, in that it merely helps connect people in the US with their local and federal representatives – so far, so good. But in the context of some of the things in Zuckerberg’s manifesto about Facebook facilitating new forms of local democracy, I worry that the company has bigger plans for the platform which would insert Facebook more directly into the democratic process. Definitely worth watching closely.
Ever since the US presidential election, Facebook and CEO Mark Zuckerberg have been grappling with what kind of company Facebook is, and its role in the modern world. Zuckerberg’s initial reaction to claims Facebook affected the election was dismissive, but his views seem to be evolving, which is a good thing. Facebook is enormously influential, and needs to recognize that.