Facebook’s Political Nightmare can be About To Get Worse


BuzzFeed News; Getty Images

If the 2016 election was proof-of-concept for platform-enabled election meddling, the 2018 midterms, just months away, are shaping up to be more of a large-scale clinical trial — in addition to an absolute nightmare for Facebook.

For Facebook, which can be still reeling via manipulation of its platform by fake news purveyors in addition to Kremlin-linked trolls seeking to disrupt US politics, November’s midterms are a chance to show ornery regulators in addition to an increasingly distrustful public that will the idea can effectively shut down malicious activity within its own platform. although they’re a daunting challenge as well, one complicated by fast-evolving tools of misinformation, bad actors incentivized by Russian success, in addition to a ferociously politicized environment — all contributing to a broad in addition to ongoing pollution of the public discourse.

Despite Facebook’s repeated reassurances, some on Capitol Hill fear the company — in addition to country — may be sucker punched again come November. in addition to a dysfunctional federal government waffling on plans to thwart future attacks on elections isn’t helping matters.

“There are various other countries who are our adversaries who have similar capabilities who see our unwillingness to defend the democracy as blood inside water.”

“Just as we were naive to not see a Russia attack coming last election, we would certainly be just as naive if we expected only an attack via Russia that will election,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told BuzzFeed News. “There are various other countries who are our adversaries who have similar capabilities who see our unwillingness to defend the democracy as blood inside water.”

Swalwell, whose attempt to create an independent commission to study Russia’s election manipulation did not go anywhere inside House, told BuzzFeed News that will Facebook can’t easily anticipate all threats the idea’s facing without close cooperation via the federal government.

“the idea can be hypocritical for me or anyone in government to even begin to suggest that will I know what Facebook should do if we can’t get our act together in addition to do something ourselves,” Swalwell said. He bemoaned National Security Agency director Adm. Mike Rogers’ recent declaration that will he has yet to receive authority via the White House to disrupt Russian cyber attacks. “If we don’t change the dynamic here, that will can be going to continue in addition to 2016 won’t be viewed as something isolated,” Rogers told Congress last week.

Across the political spectrum, there’s worry that will an ineffective national security apparatus can be putting Facebook in position to fail again. “There’s expectations that will Facebook in addition to the various other platforms are supposed to solve problems that will the government in addition to national security apparatus missed in addition to so far haven’t engaged,” Zac Moffatt, digital director of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, told BuzzFeed News. “Without the national apparatus, how could the platforms be successful?”

“I would certainly be shocked if didn’t happen.”

Meanwhile, concerns over the future weaponization of Facebook’s ad platform as a tool of micro-targeted voter suppression are growing. Jess Bahr, an advertising professional who has run local political advertising campaigns reaching millions of US voters, told BuzzFeed News that will Facebook’s ability to identify in addition to deliver advertising to very specific audiences based on political affinity in addition to Congressional district could easily be misused to suppress voting in battleground states. “I would certainly be shocked if didn’t happen,” she said. “Stopping the advertisement can be only part of the idea. As soon as you put that will information out there for people to share, Facebook loses control of the idea.”

Bryan DeSena, head of social at Saatchi & Saatchi, told BuzzFeed News that will what we’re experiencing can be already something of a worst case scenario. “the idea’s a terrible feeling to know that will the industry you work in has laid the groundwork just for that will sort of messy spiral to begin,” he said. “I am not sure the platforms alone are responsible for stopping the idea. the idea’s a much larger issue, one that will needs to impact our educational system, net neutrality legislation in addition to various other civic debates.”

Malicious foreign actors aren’t the only ones looking to exploit Facebook — mainstream politicians are looking to do the idea too by creating made-for-Facebook “news” sites that will traffic in partisan in addition to sometimes sensationalist messaging geared to spread on Facebook in addition to various other social platforms. inside months since the 2016 election, the Republican Governors Association, California Rep. Devin Nunes, ex-Hillary Clinton aide Peter Daou, in addition to various other politicians have sponsored these sites. Nunes’ site, the California Republican, can be filled with headlines like “CNN busted for peddling fake news AGAIN!” in addition to “completely new York Times can be doing a GREAT job as Communism’s salesman.” the idea greets visitors using a pop-up asking them to like the idea on Facebook before they enter in addition to features a “Like us at FB” banner that will’s approximately twice the size of its own logo. The site’s only visible connection to Nunes can be a tiny disclosure in its footer.

The Free Telegraph, a site sponsored by the RGA, also features prominent Facebook branding on its website in addition to publishes native video to the social platform as well. Its Facebook page, followed by 31,000, promises to take readers “beyond the Beltway.” A recent quiz on the site poked at completely new Jersey’s wealthy Democrat governor. “Which one of Phil Murphy’s Houses Are You?” the idea asked. There can be no mention of the RGA link in its Facebook page About section. The Free Telegraph does disclose the connection at the bottom of its articles.

“I am not sure the platforms alone are responsible for stopping the idea.”

Democrats have tried their hand at creating their own news sites too. Last fall, Hillary Clinton endorsed Verrit, a made-for-social “news” site created by former aide Peter Daou. Verrit went quiet last month, promising to “reboot” in summer 2018.

The California Republican, Free Telegraph, Verrit, in addition to various other sites like them might not be peddling misinformation, although by using Facebook as an accelerant for partisan, inherently biased political commentary in addition to passing the idea off as “news” they are further muddying some already turbid waters. More troubling can be the idea that will mainstream politicians appear to be adopting tactics known to have sowed so much political discord during the 2016 election. “You can draw a direct line via the practices of fake news sites to the Republican Governors [Association’s] strategy with these sites,” one angry senior democratic operative told BuzzFeed News.

RGA communications director Jon Thompson disputed the notion that will the Free Telegraph takes inspiration via the sensationalized news sites that will have flourished on Facebook. “the idea’s a project designed to help share information about the about how Republican governors are leading in addition to getting results for their states,” he said.

The California Republican homepage.

With Facebook still struggling to contain misinformation via written stories, artificial intelligence breakthroughs are threatening to make 2016’s fake news epidemic look relatively benign, creating a completely new opportunity for bad actors to exploit completely new formats. The breakthroughs are in video in addition to audio, where completely new, accessible technology can be on the cusp of giving people the tools to create realistic fake videos of people saying or doing just about anything. Already, faked videos of Barack Obama are generating the rounds. in addition to though they may not factor prominently inside 2018 midterms, the idea’s not hard to see around the corner, where these videos could give Facebook in addition to various other platforms a completely new, more devastating category of fake news to grapple with.

“that will can be one of the greatest threats we are about to face as a society,” Moffatt said. “the idea’s something we’re wholly unprepared for.”

Platform-propagated conspiracy theories will also factor inside 2018 midterms. Jonathan Albright, research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, told BuzzFeed News that will he was particularly struck by the recent spread of conspiracy theories claiming that will the Parkland High School shooting survivors were crisis actors. “The success that will the conspiracy theorists had in pushing the debate away via gun control in addition to onto crisis actors was unbelievable,” he said. Parkland, Albright said, “was a warm up,” for the 2018 midterms.

Facebook has promised fixes to the vulnerabilities the idea knows about. the idea will soon publicly display all the ads that will run on its service, bringing so-called dark ads into the light. the idea’s forcing political advertisers to be more transparent, creating special labeling to make them stand out in News Feed. the idea’s also inside process of adding 10,000 people, including reviewers in addition to security experts, to deal with these threats. in addition to, according to a Facebook spokesperson, the idea’s working to proactively block the spread of fake news in addition to creation of fake accounts earlier inside process.

“Facebook fully understands — in addition to takes seriously — our role in addition to responsibility when the idea comes to helping protect elections integrity on our platform,” Samidh Chakrabarti, Facebook’s product manager for elections integrity in addition to civic engagement, told BuzzFeed News in an emailed statement. “People around the globe use Facebook to make real, meaningful connections, in addition to we have to do all we can to prevent abuse in addition to misuse of our services. We give that will considerable thought, learning lessons via the past while looking for completely new threats. We are generating significant investments, both in products in addition to in people, to further develop a comprehensive approach to tackle these important issues.”

Still, the company’s thus far uneven response to the 2016 crisis calls into question its ability to effectively mitigate the next one. Facebook has promised to tackle fake news for years, for instance, yet the idea’s still spreading on its platform. in addition to despite the company’s declarations that will the idea’s taking the problem seriously, there are still signs of denial inside its ranks. Last month, the company’s ads VP Rob Goldman publicly contradicted special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings, saying that will the Russians’ primary goal was not to sway the election, while Mueller said the idea was. The true story, Goldman indicated, wasn’t being reported “because the idea doesn’t align with the main media narrative of Tump [sic] in addition to the election.”

“We’re definitely playing catch up.”

Facebook’s sprawling in addition to continuously evolving platform makes mitigating crisis difficult as urgent attention to one problem often allows completely new problems to emerge where the company can be less vigilant. For instance, as the company pushed its groups products hard in recent years, the Kremlin-linked trolls saw that will, built their own groups in addition to weaponized them. in addition to as Facebook focuses on its core product, digital malfeasance can be spreading on its satellite apps. Hoaxes have thrived on WhatsApp in India, for instance, where misinformation has spread on the app, creating panic, in addition to even leading to a death. in addition to on Messenger, child porn has gone viral. These products aren’t immune to political exploitation, either.

“Empowering anyone to share thoughts in addition to ideas with the globe will, of course, lead to things we do not like,” one former Facebook employee told BuzzFeed News. ”These systems can be enhanced, although I’m not sure the problem can be ‘solved.’ A lot of that will stuff can be inherently going to exist in a user-generated content platform. Do we want more voices in addition to the warts that will come with the idea? Or less voices in addition to less agency for the common person? the idea’s an ideological trade-off that will we must wrestle with as a society.”

although wrestling with such ideological questions while doing damage control on a platform that will became an engine of discord during the last election can be difficult. in addition to the idea’s even more difficult when you’re doing the idea just a few months ahead of another crucial election. The timing can be particularly inopportune. in addition to even the top levels of Facebook aren’t under the illusion that will they’re currently in position to stop what’s coming. As Sheryl Sandberg put the idea last Friday: “We’re definitely playing catch up.” ●

Alex Kantrowitz can be a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News in addition to can be based in San Francisco. He reports on social in addition to communications.

Contact Alex Kantrowitz at alex.kantrowitz@buzzfeed.com.

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