Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg was interviewed today by Axios’s Mike Allen on the subject of Russian election interference and other topics, while Facebook also issued some data about the effectiveness of its program to flag fake news on the platform. At the same time, the Washington Post reports that Facebook has removed a set of data from its site and tools which allowed for analysis of Russian-related postings.
The Sandberg interview shed little additional light on the topic, with the only real news that Facebook is sharing both the ads bought by Russian-backed entities and additional details associated with them with Congress, which in turn may share them publicly. However, she was also asked whether Facebook was a media company, a characterization she pushed back on, leading to several articles from actual media companies arguing that she’s wrong. There continues to be something of an ulterior motive for these stories given the tense relationship between Facebook and the media, but I continue to believe that these characterizations are wrong. To my mind, Facebook is much more like a cable TV company than a TV programmer, putting together a package of content for users but not mostly doing that programming itself, while selling ads that appear within the programming. I don’t think most would argue that cable TV companies are media companies or that they’re responsible for the specific content of the programming, while they are responsible for establishing general policies and rules about what will run on their platforms.
The data Facebook shared on its fake news flagging effort suggests that a fake news label applied after fact checking from third parties effectively reduces sharing and views once it’s applied, but the problem has always been that it takes several days for this to happen, which means most of the views have already happened by the time it takes effect. It shared the data with its fact checking partners as a way to incentivize them to do better (something they’ve been asking for) but without massive new resources from Facebook or elsewhere, it’s not clear how those organizations will be able to work faster or cover more ground. That, in turn, will continue to limit the effectiveness of the program.
Lastly, Facebook says the data it has pulled from its site with regard to Russian accounts should never have been available in the first place, and its disappearance therefore reflects the squashing of a bug rather than a decision to pull otherwise public information. Whether you believe that or not likely depends on your view of Facebook’s overall level of transparency in relation to the Russia story, which has clearly been limited. It appears Facebook at a corporate level is still desperate to control the flow of information about Russian influence on the platform, which likely isn’t helping its PR effort here – better to be as transparent as possible so that all possible bad news can come out quickly rather than continuing to trickle out.
Google has apparently now, like Facebook and Twitter, found at least some spending by actors tied to the Russian government on its platforms, including YouTube and Gmail, and the Washington Post says the amounts spent were in the tens of thousands of dollars. However, the New York Times reports that the actual amount definitely spent by entities connected to the Kremlin was much smaller, at around $4,700, while there is another $53,000 that was spent by Russian entities which have not yet been proven to have a connection to the government. Unlike the money spent on Facebook, of course, ads on Google’s platforms have far less potential to drive viral activity, meaning that the direct reach of the ads was likely much of the total reach, and that amount of money wouldn’t have bought much of that. Google doesn’t seem to have commented on the record about any of this yet, but my guess is that the Times story was pushed by Google PR to provide context on the Post one. But this does draw Google further into the mire that’s already engulfing Facebook and to a lesser extent Twitter, something of which we saw further evidence over the weekend.
I’m actually tying three stories together here, only two of them referenced in the headline. The first is news that Facebook is tightening the review process for ads that seek to target by politics, religion, ethnicity, or social issues, requiring human approval before these ads can be shown to users. Secondly, Facebook’s Chief Security Officer, Alex Stamos, went on something of a Twitter ant on Saturday in which he complained about what he described as overly-simplistic coverage of complex issues by the media. And thirdly, CBS had an interview on Sunday with the Trump campaign’s digital director, who claims that it worked in very direct and sophisticated ways with Facebook to do micro-targeting of its ads, including having Trump-sympathetic members of the Facebook staff working directly with the campaign in its offices.
The ad review change is a sensible one in response to recent revelations about how these tools were used in the past, but is likely to catch lots of entirely innocent activity too – e.g. someone targeting members of a particular religion with products or services relevant to them – and will likely slow down the approval process for those ads. It will also slow down the approval process for political ads during campaigns, when the volume of ads tends to rise dramatically, and the review team will need to be augmented significantly. That delay could prove costly as campaigns become more nimble in responding to news in real time and want to target ads immediately. We won’t know the impact of that until next year, as mid-term campaigns ramp up.
The Stamos rant garners some sympathy from me, because I agree that some of what’s been in the press has assumed that Facebook should have been aware of these attempts to game its systems at a time when the US government and security agencies hadn’t yet addressed the issues at all in public. But the rant is also indicative of what appears to be a split between the security and engineering teams at Facebook, which clearly want to speak out more, and the PR and broader senior management team, which seem to want to say as little as possible – several reporters I follow on Twitter responded to the thread with frustration over the fact that Facebook hasn’t made people available to talk about the details here.
Lastly, the CBS story doesn’t seem to have been picked up widely and may be partly exaggeration on the part of the source, but there’s no doubt that the Trump campaign did use the tools Facebook offers extremely effectively during the campaign, and that it played an important role in the outcome. What’s important here is that its uses were all legitimate, in contrast to the use of Facebook by Russian actors claiming to represent US interests, but the effects and even techniques used were in many ways similar. Even as Facebook clamps down on one type of influence, the broad patterns will remain similar, and as long as foreign actors can find US-based channels willing to act as fronts, it’s going to be extremely difficult to shut down this type of activity entirely.
Facebook still hasn’t shared all of the details of the ads bought by Russian agents on Facebook over the last few years with Congress, and hasn’t really shared any of the details with the general public. However, some of the details have emerged regardless, and one researcher has used that information to do some analysis of the reach of some of the posts on the accounts controlled by entities tied to the Kremlin. What he found is that the organic reach of those posts has been enormous, much larger than the numbers reached by the ads themselves alone as reported by Facebook, suggesting that Facebook is using the narrowest possible definitions of reach in its reporting and thereby downplaying the impact.
Until Facebook does release the full details of the Russian operations, we can’t know the true reach for sure, and this analysis is merely indicative of organic reach achieved by half a dozen of the biggest accounts we do know about. But it’s clear that the operation was both sophisticated and very effective in reaching large numbers of people, leveraging many of the same techniques used by legitimate news organizations and others on Facebook. Given that these techniques are all available to anyone who uses Facebook, the only way they could have been stopped is if there was clear evidence that the accounts behind them were “inauthentic” (to use Facebook’s terminology) way earlier in the process. And given that neither it nor the US government were actively investigating that possibility during the election, that was never likely to happen. It’s also not clear how Facebook would go about policing this kind of thing going forward.
Facebook has made yet another announcement in what’s rapidly becoming the saga of Russian ad-buying on the platform and the ongoing fallout from it. This time around, it says it’s going to share the details of the 3000 suspicious ads placed on the platform with the US Congress, and it’s also going to hire a thousand additional people for its ad review team to ensure that inappropriate ads don’t get through. The rest of the announcement focuses mostly on fleshing out promises made over the last couple of weeks, though there’s still relatively little transparency on what’s actually going to change and/or when in some cases. Over the weekend, Mark Zuckerberg also personally apologized for any role Facebook may have had in sowing divisions in the world and promised to work to make things better in future, as part of a post relating to the Yom Kippur Jewish holiday. It’s clear that he’s taken all of this far more seriously and increasingly personally as well over recent months, though many still want him and Facebook to do far more to increase transparency over how Facebook has been used for ill and how it will change as a result.
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).
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.
Facebook has begun inserting posts from local elected officials into users’ News Feeds in the app as part of a test it’s running, the latest in a set of moves over the past year to increase the visibility of political and election-related content on Facebook. This is one of those things that simultaneously feels like a great idea and fraught with problems. On the one hand, allowing local officials to communicate more effectively with their constituents at a time when news consumption is becoming more polarized, thanks in part to Facebook itself, seems like a great idea. On the other hand, local officials are also candidates in what sometimes seem like permanent election seasons in the US, at least for certain offices, and if Facebook only promotes posts from elected officials without promoting those of their opponents and rivals in elections, that’s an enormous issue. Of the two screenshots in the Recode piece linked below, one feels relatively apolitical while the other is clearly more political in nature, and a user who was shown only that one and not also something from a representative of a different political party would be getting only one perspective in a way that would be almost impossible for others to address without resorting to paid advertising on Facebook. The approach would massively favor incumbents over their challengers, something the US political system already does to a great extent. So although the effort seems like it has worthwhile elements, it feels like the potential for harm is significant, and I would guess that there will be a big backlash from politicians who feel they’ve been discriminated against if this test moves to a widespread rollout.
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.
Apple and Google condemn Trump’s decision to revoke transgender bathroom guidelines – Recode (Feb 23, 2017)
This issue feels like it’s attracting a lot less attention than the immigration executive orders from a few weeks back, but that doesn’t mean that tech companies aren’t weighing in all the same. This article has comments from Apple, Google, and Salesforce opposing the administration’s actions, but John Paczkowski of BuzzFeed has been tweeting commentary from a number of other companies today including Facebook, IBM, and Dell. Unlike the immigration bill, where at least part of the rationale for opposing the administration was business related, this argument is being made entirely in moral terms, echoing some of the opposition to North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” last year. That’s interesting territory for big public companies to wade into – something we discussed on the Beyond Devices Podcast two weeks ago.
Uber has been by far the tech company hardest hit by the combination of its overall relationship with Trump and its response to the immigration actions last week, in some cases perhaps unfairly. But it was Travis Kalanick’s position on one of Trump’s advisory councils, and his apparent complete willingness to be close to the administration, which set the context for all that followed. Without his perceived indifference to what many others in the tech industry have seen as a deeply flawed administration, I suspect Uber’s actions over the past week wouldn’t have been seen in the same light, and as such his position on the advisory council was at least as much to blame as specific actions taken since last Friday. His departure from the council comes fairly late in the game, and so it’s not clear what difference it will make now – the narrative is fairly set at this point. But Uber has apparently lost 200,000 customers over this issue, and it’s a no-brainer that Kalanick would step down rather than continue hurting his business over this issue. It’s notable that Elon Musk remains on the council, and Tesla has also lost some Model 3 preorders over this, but he today defended his decision and stated his intention to continue to try to influence the situation from the inside rather than the sidelines. The fault lines in all this are fascinating to watch – we’re going to see lots more movement from tech companies as they seek to strike the right balance between constructive criticism and outright opposition to the administration and its policies.
via New York Times
Two politics stories today, as this one follows the Facebook story from earlier. This one also echoes an earlier story about big tech companies rethinking their political alliances both in the face of a possible shift to the right and now in the wake of an actual take over of both the executive and legislative branches by Republicans. It’s easy to see this as a swing from left to right, but I think it’s better seen as pragmatism about working with whoever is in power. The wrinkle is that Google had particularly strong ties with the Obama administration at multiple levels, and Eric Schmidt in particular was involved with the Clinton campaign, at least indirectly. Google / Alphabet arguably has the most to fear of the major tech companies from a backlash against tech companies based on their support for Democrats, and is clearly doing all it can to make nice now. Having said all that, the degree to which companies have to worry about such a backlash is surely much higher under this administration than any previous one.
These numbers get crunched every year, and are always an insight into the sometimes complex relationship between tech companies and the US government, as well as the very different strategies pursued by the various companies – Apple spends far less than some of its peers (less even than Facebook, which is a fraction of its size), while Google is always a big spender. The other thing I’m always struck by is the relatively tiny size of the spending – even Google’s $15.4m lobbying spending is minuscule in the context of its overall business – Apple’s spend was a fraction of a hundredth of a percent of its revenue for the year. It’s also interesting to see which issues the companies lobbied on: Apple lobbied mostly on technical issues directly related to its business, while Google lobbied more broadly on trade and immigration policy as well as several technical topics. All this will obviously potentially get a lot more complicated under the new administration, which has so far had a much more adversarial tone towards big tech companies than its predecessor.
Elon Musk: Surprise winner under Trump – CNBC (Jan 24, 2017)
Although the tech sector has generally recoiled in horror at the prospect of Donald Trump’s presidency, and cooperated only under duress with the incoming administration, Elon Musk of Tesla seems to be something of an exception. His history with Peter Thiel, Trump’s right hand man on tech issues, is a major enabler, but it seems to go beyond that. It would be fascinating if Musk rather than Thiel himself ended up becoming the bridge between the administration and the tech industry. Cooperating closely with the administration is still likely to be a double-edged sword – on the one hand, it may curry favor, but on the other it may anger Tesla customers who view Trump with distaste. It will be fascinating to watch how this plays out.
Inside Twitter, employees reckon with Trump – The Verge (Jan 12, 2017)
Twitter is probably the tech company that has the most complex relationship with Donald Trump as a candidate and now as president-elect. On the one hand, like many Silicon Valley people, Twitter employees seem largely to be horrified by Trump, but on the other he’s used their product more effectively than any candidate in history, and continues to use it regularly as he prepares to assume the office of the presidency. This piece does a nice job highlighting these conflicts, and the relative powerlessness of anyone at Twitter to resolve them.
Silicon Valley Takes a Right Turn – The New York Times (Jan 12, 2017)
The headline is an exaggeration – two of the four big companies mentioned are based in Washington, not California, and it’s their corporate PACs which have begun to favor Republican candidates, while their employees remain very firmly left-leaning. But the article does do a great job talking through some of the changes in recent years as big tech companies have shifted their donations towards Republicans while a Democratic president was in office. The data doesn’t go back far enough to indicate whether this is just a cyclical thing, but there’s some evidence the donations were motivated by hopes for more lenient regulatory and taxation policy under a Republican administration. Now that we’re heading into Republican control of both Congress and the presidency, we’ll see how that pans out in practice.
Alibaba promises Trump it’ll create a million U.S. jobs, but don’t believe it – MarketWatch (Jan 11, 2017)
This is a great bit of analysis on the latest job creation claim from an industrial leader after meeting Donald Trump. In this case, Jennifer Booton points out that Alibaba is talking about indirect job creation in the US through a Chinese-based entity, not employing people in the US directly. But it’s another sign of both he need major tech firms seem to feel to engage with the incoming administration, and their understanding that they can ingratiate themselves with it by talking about job creation. I suspect we’ll see a lot more shaky claims about job creation made by big tech companies in the coming months and years.