Facebook Goes Into High Gear to Fight Election Meddling, Fake News

Defending against foreign interference in American elections is one of the priorities Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been focusing on this year, he said in a post Wednesday.

The issue is highly sensitive, and it is one that has garnered a great deal of discussion in media reports and on the Web. Special counsel Robert Mueller warned in a court filing this spring that foreign interference efforts were still going on, and President Trump earlier this week signed an executive order that would punish such interference with sanctions.

To date, Facebook has taken the following steps:

  • Identified and removed fake accounts ahead of elections in various countries;
  • Taken down foreign influence campaigns from Russia, Iran, Mexico and Brazil trying to influence elections abroad;
  • Attacked economic incentives to spread misinformation;
  • Worked more closely with governments — including in Germany, the United States and Mexico — to improve security during elections; and
  • Set a new standard for transparency in the advertising industry that makes advertisers more accountable for the ads they run.

Using machine learning, Facebook identified and removed more than 1 billion fake accounts between October and March. It has doubled its safety and security workforce over the past year, from 10,000 to more than 20,000. It has been identifying and removing accounts associated with networks of people launching coordinated campaigns to distribute fake information.

Multiplying Moles

Facebook also has been taking down viral misinformation that might contribute to violence. It has been reducing the distribution of viral misinformation in general. It has been using the International Fact-Checking Network to review posts going viral or flagged as potentially false, and demoting those rated as false.

Advertisers running political and issue ads on Facebook now must disclose their identities. Ads are put into a searchable public archive. Also, businesses whose ads touch various issues now must get verified.

Facebook this spring set up an independent election research commission to independently study its role in elections, including its effectiveness in preventing abuse.

Facebook needs “to constantly improve and stay one step ahead,” Zuckerberg said, an effort that will “take continued, heavy investment in security on our part as well as close cooperation with governments, the tech industry, and security experts, since no one institution can solve this on their own.”

The situation “is basically an arms race, and Facebook is massively overmatched,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

“When you’re rolling against the governments, the efforts of any company are likely inadequate,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “Governments can continue to swap out bad actors and even place them in country or in the company, making identification and elimination nearly impossible.”

Also, posting on Facebook is free, so rogue nations “can also use deep learning and machine learning to massively increase the frequency of posts and the variety of posters,” Enderle said. “It’s like Whack-a-Mole but with a million moles that are feverishly reproducing.”

Further, rogue countries can use other forms of communication and social media sites to engage and trick real people into posting fake information and political messages on their own Facebook accounts, he noted.

Partnering With Others

“We have longstanding relationships with other technology companies to combat security threats, and we have increased our collaboration over time,” said Facebook spokesperson Jay Nancarrow.

“In just the last months, Facebook has helped convene meetings with other technology companies to discuss election protection efforts and combating cybersecurity threats,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

The company has signed the Cybersecurity Tech Accord, and has been “working with the FBI, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and others on election protection efforts,” Nancarrow said.

“There’s more to do, but we are encouraged by actions like the creation of the FBI foreign influence task force,” he added.

However, fake accounts continue to slip through without detection, and Facebook has taken down legitimate users mistakenly, Zuckerberg admitted.

“These systems will never be perfect,” he acknowledged, “but by investing in artificial intelligence and more people, we will continue to improve.”

Facebook’s coordination with governments and industry has improved, according to Zuckerberg, but he called for better coordination among governments, tech companies and independent experts such as the Atlantic Council. Facebook this spring signed an agreement with the council to prevent election interference.

“Governments’ objectives are towards more control, while social media is about personal interaction,” observed Michael Jude, program manager at Stratecast/Frost & Sullivan.

“Governments have no business involving themselves in such interactions,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

A No-Win Situation

“Facebook’s in a no-win situation,” said Ray Wang, principal Analyst at Constellation Research.

“What’s inflammatory to someone in California may not seem so to someone in Texas. They’re getting flak for shutting down people’s voices and, on the other hand, they’re getting flak for not doing enough,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

However, Facebook has shut down several conservative commentators, “and that’s not right and shouldn’t be,” Wang said. “Good luck in determining what’s hate speech and what isn’t.”

American conservatives who believe that Facebook and other tech companies have censored their posts without good cause have filed a US$1 billion lawsuit against them.

Meanwhile, the United Nations has found that Facebook’s definition of “terrorism” mutes dissent.

“These are legitimate concerns, but nobody’s forced to use Facebook,” noted Frost’s Jude.

Whistling in the Wind

“If Facebook’s attempting to protect elections, it has to be very clear about how that impacts its users,” Jude said. “If Facebook’s a free speech zone, it shouldn’t police anything. That should be up to … well … police.”

Social media sites “say they are open forums, but they’re really advertising companies with a vested interest in consumer perceptions,” he pointed out. “They should completely open their forum to everything, then tell the government if it wants to police discourse, to get a warrant and go for it.”

Facebook’s attempts to combat fake news are ineffective, according to Jude, because “there are too many ways around anything they might build.”

Richard Adhikari

Richard Adhikari has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2008. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile technologies, CRM, databases, software development, mainframe and mid-range computing, and application development. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including Information Week and Computerworld. He is the author of two books on client/server technology. Email Richard.

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