Election meddling is Facebook’s next antagonist, and it’s got a plan to attack it just like it did with fake news. Answers to both these scourges come too late to prevent tamper that may have aided Donald Trump winning the presidency — but at least Facebook is owning upto the problem, working with the government and starting to self-regulate. Here’s the nine-point plan Zuckerberg has devised to combat election interference, plus our commentary on each strategy’s potential.
One: Russian-bought ads to Congress- “We are actively working with the US government on its ongoing investigations into Russian interference. We have been investigating this for many months, and for a while we had observed no evidence of fake accounts links between Russia operating ads. When we recently uncovered the above activities, we provided that information to the special counsel. We also briefed Congress — and this morning I directed our team to provide the ads we’ve found to Congress as well. As a general rule, we are limited in what we can discuss publicly about law enforcement investigations, so we may not always be able to share our findings publicly. But we are in favour Congress in deciding how to best use this information to inform the public, and we expect the government to publish its findings when their investigation is complete.”
TC- Facebook initially shared more information with Special Counsel Robert Mueller than Congress, but after checking to make sure it won’t violate privacy laws, it’s giving the Russian-bought ads to Congress too. This could aid their investigation while preventing them from legally extracting the information from Facebook in a messy public ordeal.
Two: Continuing Facebook’s own investigation- “We will continue our investigation into what happened on Facebook in this election. We may find more, and if we do, we will continue to work with the government. We are looking into foreign actors, including additional Russian groups and other former Soviet states, as well as organisations like the campaigns, to further our understanding of how they used our tools. These investigations will take some time, but we will continue our thorough review.”
TC- Facebook’s depth of access to its systems means it could surface evidence of election interference that Mueller or Congress can’t get from just the data Facebook provides. Facebook needs to review not just its ad systems and fake news in the News Feed, but also employ of Events, chat, user profiles, Groups and its other apps like Instagram and WhatsApp.
Three: Political ad transparency- “Going forward — and perhaps the most important step we’re taking — we’re going to build political advertising more transparent. When someone buys political ads on TV or other media, they’re required by law to disclose who paid for them. But you still don’t know if you’re considering the same messages as everyone else. So we’re going to bring Facebook to an even higher standard of transparency. Not merely will you have to disclose which page paid for an ad, but we will also make it so you can visit an advertiser’s page and insure the ads they’re currently running to any audience on Facebook. We will roll this out over the coming months, and we will work with others to create a new standard for transparency in online political ads.”
TC- Facebook has held that ads are user content and therefore it could infringe privacy to disclose the content and targeting of all ads. Industries see their ads and targeting schemes as proprietary secrets. But when it comes to election and political ad, the public good may need to be prioritized above corporate privacy. Building this transparency system may be complicated, and most users might not take the time to use it, but it could assist investigators and offer peace of mind.
Four: Political ad reviews- “We will strengthen our ad review process for political ads. To be clear, it has always been against our policies to use any of our tools in such a way that transgresses the law — and we already have many controls in place to prevent this. But we can do more. Most ads are bought programmatically through our apps and website without the advertiser ever speaking to anyone at Facebook. That’s what happened here. But even without our employees involved in the sales, we can do better.”
TC- The lack of stronger oversight of political ad buying given the contentious 2016 U.S. general elections may have been one of Facebook’s more obvious mistakes. It needs to do a better task of understanding when scale isn’t an excuse for weak monitoring of this highly sensitive type of advertising. Facebook have all along touted its ability to influence people, but didn’t set sufficient safeguards in place to prevent unethical or illegal influence campaigns. If Facebook can construct these scaled systems for programmatic ad buying, it must also do the work to implement programmatic protections against abuse with keyword block lists, visual detecting of hateful imagery, and triggers that push ads to human review.
Bonus- Facebook admits it can’t block all the interference- “Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you we’re going to catch all bad content in our system. We don’t check what people say before they say it, and candidly, I don’t think our society should want us to. Freedom means you don’t have to ask permission first, and that by default you can say what you want. If you transgress our community criteria or the law, then you’re going to face consequences afterwards. We won’t catch everyone immediately, but we can make it harder to try to interfere.”
TC- It’s good to see Facebook being honest about its limitations here. It’s constructed a community too big to perfectly police, and accepting that is the first step to getting closer to satisfactory protection.
Five: Hiring 250 more election integrity employees- “We are increasing our investment in security and specifically election integrity. In the next year, we will more than doubled the team working on election integrity. In total, we’ll add more than 250 people across all our teams focused on security and safety for our community.”
TC- Again, this is something Facebook should have known to do before the 2016 election. It’s earning more than$ 3 billion in gain per quarter, so it can easily afford this staff increase. It’s simply a matter of Facebook foreseeing the worst-case scenarios of how its products could be used, which it’s repeatedly failed to do.