Facebook’s Plan to Defend Democracy

Bryden Smith

More stories from Bryden Smith

Originally published on Sep. 30th, 2017.

The pile of evidence regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election keeps growing in size and complexity. On September 21st Facebook announced that over 3000 inflammatory advertisements originating from Russian accounts would be relinquished to the congressional committees conducting the investigation.

According to Alex Stamos, Facebook’s Chief Security Officer, the ads were centered “on amplifying divisive social and political messages [such as race, gun control, etc.]” rather than the defamation or promotion of any particular candidate.

One example is “Secured Borders”, a Facebook page that spread anti-immigrant, anti-refugee rhetoric to over 130K followers and even organized local protests using Facebook’s event tool. The page was created by the Internet Research Agency, a firm that employs social media users to produce provocative content. Their headquarters are located in St. Petersburg, Russia.

A few posts originating from “Secured Borders”. Image via the New York Times

Scary, right? Well, it turns out Facebook made it pretty easy for them. Not only are political internet-ads free from full transparency (there’s no ‘I’m so-and-so and I approve this message’ notices attached to them), the self-serve advertisement tools allow users to quickly upload their ads. Once they are approved by Facebook, they are directed to a targeted market of the user’s choice. However, it’s not as if they are reviewed by an employee — algorithmic software decides whether or not an ad meets the requirements.

ProPublica decided to experiment with this feature and found that within fifteen minutes, an ad was approved to be targeted towards the news feeds of self-identified anti-Semites under the tag, “Jew-hater”. It is the same feature that allowed Russians to reach American voters with divisive messages during last years election.

President Trump’s position remains the same, continuing to declare the entire idea of Russia interference a “hoax”.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has recently changed his position from that of late 2016 when he was quoted saying that fake-news on Facebook influencing elections was “a pretty crazy idea”. Last Thursday he broadcasted on Facebook Live stating the steps the company will be taking to protect democracy.

His speech was not an apology for Facebook’s role in the scandal; it was a message to all users asking for trust. Zuckerberg said, “It is a new challenge for internet communities to deal with nation-states attempting to subvert elections. But if that’s what we must do, we are committed to rising to the occasion.”

The first step was turning over the 3000 ads and assisting the congressional committees in their investigation. In the words of Sen. Mark Warner, it’s “really important that Facebook works with us.” Also in motion is an internal investigation where Facebook aims to better understand how those with malicious intent — sometimes called “trolls”– use and abuse their tools.

In addition, they are working to make advertisements across the site more transparent; users will be able to visit the pages of advertisers and see all of the ads, not just the ones that were targeted towards them. This will increase the clarity of agendas for all advertisers.

Soon, over 250 positions will be added to the security team at Facebook. They will be working to help candidates across the world recognize and prevent online risks while helping citizens understand the issues they’ll be voting on. Already, Facebook worked to safeguard the recent German election, taking down “thousands” of troll accounts.

And most importantly, Zuckerberg promises that Facebook will improve their ad-processing software, which will hopefully mean that malicious ads and fake news will be stopped before they can reach anyone.

The face of Facebook certainly proved himself as a talented persuader. Farad Manjoo, who has been covering technology for Slate and The New York Times for years, said that Zuckerberg’s “true skill is not in seeing ahead, but in looking back and fixing where Facebook has failed. And what’s noteworthy is that when he marshals Facebook’s considerable resources to address a problem, Mr. Zuckerberg has a track record of making things right.”

Many agree with Manjoo’s sentiment, some don’t. Some of the top comments on Zuckerberg’s address include:

Are these democracy-defending measures enough? The answer is not yet known. Even Zuckerberg admits that some are likely to slip through the cracks, saying “I wish I could tell you that we’re going to be able to stop all interference, but that wouldn’t be realistic.”

Facebook has accumulated over two billion users, more than half of which using it every single day. Sadly, outside of reading the extensive privacy and data policies, there’s not much they can do, other than to trust that Zuckerberg knows what he’s doing. But if the issue of Russian-meddling follows the path of Facebook’s usual scandals, then trust they will.

You can watch the Facebook Live address below.