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Thursday, January 17, 2019

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.


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 helm 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.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).


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13 responses to “Was Facebook Fooled By The Russians, Or Did It Know All Along?”

  1. FireBaron says:

    Facebook? Fooled by Russian agents provocateur? How could that be possible? Aren’t their algorithms supposed to spot stuff like this? Oh, the humanity!

  2. I of John says:

    Obviously the technology of our time is again outstripping our ability to compensate for it.

    • Eleanore Whitaker says:

      If my two financial manager friends are any guess as to why the next Wall Street crash will be the worst, you are correct. Technology has definitely outstripped government’s ability to stay ahead of these white collar criminals. It’s only AFTER they get a little too comfortable stealing money in mass amounts as Madoff did that it sets off a red flag.

      • I of John says:

        Techology may come and go but greed is eternal.

        • Eleanore Whitaker says:

          Greed may be eternal. But, it is always punishable by LAW. WE have laws in the US to protect us from Greed, lies, deception and theft. We have laws that protect us from injury and death.

          Greedy men are just morons who think they are so far above the laws that laws do not apply to them. Oh no? That’s what Kozlowski, Ebbers, Madoff, Skilling, one of the Huntsmans and Icahn all thought too.

          Then, you have the gangsters like Trump, did Capone, Genovese, Little Nicky, Gotti Sr. or Gotti Jr. get away with it? Did Bonnie and Clyde? Jesse James? Pretty Boy Floyd? They got theirs in the end.

          I almost wish for the early days of J. Edgar’s methods….shoot to kill when these robbers are captured.

          Do the crime? Do the time.

  3. rednekokie says:

    I’m convinced that slimy Zuckerberg knew about the whole thing all along — it fits right in with his insatiable drive for money, no matter what.
    His crappy web site is the perfect example of that.

  4. There are so many angles and themes connected with this disclosure that I’m at a loss as to where to begin. But let’s try.

    1) First and foremost is this recurrence of a human characteristic grown to disproportionate dimensions—Greed. And as a related facet is this inordinate desire to utilize a corruption of Adam Smith’s “Free Market” concepts he elaborated on at length
    in his “The Wealth of Nations”. However, I discovered that Adam Smith was also concerned about the moral dimensions of commerce and trade in a prior book of his
    “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”. The latter work has been conveniently ignored by the GOP and its big business associates, resulting in an amorality of epic proportion coursing through the ethos of America, Russia, China, many European nations, and elsewhere.
    2) Associated with the lack of a moral perspective as mentioned above, is this dangerous notion that a Standard for moral restraints isn’t necessary; that humans on their own would be able to independently use their reasoning powers to learn for themselves what constitutes proper and acceptable behavior. Well, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Exxon, Wells Fargo, Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump and family, the GOP, etc. are proving in spades the absurdity of this notion and we have a mountain of plain evidence to prove such a fantasy.
    3) Since Religion—an institution charged and mandated by the Creator to provide such a Standard of Morality—has been so corrupted by the very “shepherds” given the responsibility of seeing to it that the generality of humankind in any society/region be involved in inculcating virtuous conduct, that the Institution of the Clergy of the status quo Religions no longer wield the power to encourage good behavior, because they themselves are unmasked on a regular basis of being either amoral or immoral as noted by countless clerics found guilty of having no conscience by deed, or by their avowed support for Trump and this licentious atmosphere which suffuses every region of the nation.
    4) Russia shows a twisted mentality as a result of its total immersion in corruption by meddling in a dangerous way in the affairs of its neighbors in the world via forms of technology which no longer are capable on their own to mirror good behavior. Thus making such technologies willing and able to comply with the nihilism and amorality of Putin and his vast army of minions who are totally without a sense of remorse or shame.
    5) Then there is this divisive atmosphere we have in America that is so much a part of us that it’s as pervasive as the air we breathe, to the point that we all feel comfortable submerged in this “atmosphere” and find it quite normal to be infused by its influence.
    Which only makes it so much easier nowadays for other amoral nation-states to take advantage of this lapse of moral restraint.

    Of course all of what I post are my own unofficial readings of what is happening here and abroad, but are motivated by my exposure to the Message of Baha’u’llah, for over 50 years now. If someone knows of a better Message and/or explanation for these trends in human behavior we witness, please inform me so that I may gain better insight.

  5. FT66 says:

    Right, right, Facebook were fooled by the Russians at the same time they followed the rubes (Russian money). We shouldn’t forget why Facebook is there. They are after money like any other business makers.

    • Eleanore Whitaker says:

      In this day and age of direct deposits and withdrawals, it is more than possible that those rubles were not even seen by FB accountants.

      I know this happens because it happened to the international chemical company I worked for back in 1987. Fortunately, I caught it before we cashed their funds for work we did in South America.

      In most cases, when purchases are made by foreign clients, it is directly deposited into the vendor account. So, no one but the bank really sees the actual funds.

      For FB, it is likely that the bank that submitted those funds was a Forex bank who transferred the rubles to FB’s bank. This is the reason Deutschebank got into a mess with our government when they accepted what they knew was Russia money that had been laundered here in the US.

      This is why it is absolutely crucial that banks be strictly government regulated. Elsewise your own savings can easily be redistributed to some Russian Forex bank and used as “investments” without your knowledge.

      Trump is widely known for setting up numerous “shell businesses.” This is what Mueller is investigating at this time. Trump did this in NJ. He split up the ownership of his 2 NJ casinos among 6 others all under the Trump Organization umbrella.

      Then, when he got the FinCEN fine for money laundering at the Taj Mahal and he was forced to sell, he never paid any part of the pennies on the dollar to his creditors that is usual in bankruptcies. Instead, like in Puerto Rico, because NJ taxpayers had bankrolled part of his tax subsidies and exemptions, taxpayers like in Puerto Rico were held accountable for the portion of the money Trump used to open those casinos.

      I’m certainly no financial genius. But when it comes to Trump’s slicky boy money tricks, the guy is nothing short of a Ponzi schemer.

  6. Richard Prescott says:

    Anyone who paid attention could see what was going on. All those “shares” from “friends” that had obvious incorrect or outright lies, linked back to sites that had 2 or 3 people at most who maintained them, and whose real location was not fixed.
    I said it before, and again here. Anyone can set up a web site using provided tools like those found at Google, and other places less well known.
    And there are no laws other than slander types to prevent any kind of BS being posted.
    “Official” blogs, so-and-so’s “news”. I saw way too many and had way too many discussions about them, butting my head against a wall of stupidity.
    Facebook could have and should have known, but they rely too much on their bots to “clear” stuff for posting. I watched as their “bots” evolved in deciding what was and was not acceptable. It is no surprise that innocuous and acceptable stuff was “blocked” while shady and outright vicious or violent stuff was not.
    Now it seems everyone is dissembling and trying to finger someone or some agency to fault.

  7. Thomas Martin says:

    Facebook is a corporation. They are in business to make money – period. I don’t think they really care about what happens to the American public or they would have put the skids to Russian abuse of our media system.

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