Face­book is fight­ing false news. Is it enough?

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS - Ni­cole Car­roll Editor-in-chief USA TODAY To re­ceive this col­umn as a news­let­ter, visit newsletter­s.us­ato­day.com and sub­scribe to The Back­story.

This week, the pres­i­dent de­clined to com­mit to a peace­ful trans­fer of power should he lose the elec­tion. Face­book is pre­par­ing for this and other sce­nar­ios fol­low­ing the Nov. 3 vote.

Our ed­i­to­rial board talked Tues­day with Nick Clegg, a for­mer Bri­tish deputy prime min­is­ter who is the com­pany’s head of global af­fairs and com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and Nathaniel Gle­icher, Face­book’s head of cy­ber­se­cu­rity pol­icy, about mea­sures they’re tak­ing lead­ing up to and out of the elec­tion.

“We’ve re­cruited a bunch of very spe­cial­ized folks to help us as a com­pany do the most metic­u­lous form of sce­nario plan­ning that we pos­si­bly can, from the non-sce­nar­ios to some ex­tremely wor­ry­ing ones,” Clegg said. “We now have re­la­tion­ships with elec­tion au­thor­i­ties on the ground in all the states across the coun­try.”

They’ve learned from 2016, he said, and have stud­ied more than 200 elec­tions around the world since then to pre­pare.

In worst-case sit­u­a­tions, where post­elec­tion chaos has turned into vi­o­lent civil strife, Clegg said, “We have de­vel­oped break-glass tools which do al­low us to – if for a tem­po­rary pe­riod of time – ef­fec­tively throw a blan­ket over a lot of con­tent that would freely cir­cu­late on our plat­forms.”

He doesn’t get much more spe­cific on the tac­tics they use, “be­cause it will, no doubt, elicit greater sense of anx­i­ety than we hope will be war­ranted.”

But he did say specif­i­cally that nei­ther pres­i­den­tial can­di­date will be al­lowed to claim pre­ma­ture vic­tory on Face­book. Asked about Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, he said: “Very sim­ply, he wouldn’t be able to do it unchecked. We would put a great big la­bel on his post with words to the ef­fect that the re­sults have not been cer­ti­fied.”

Face­book has been work­ing on 2020 elec­tion se­cu­rity pretty much since 2016, when Rus­sians placed more than 3,000 ads to sow divi­sion among Amer­i­can vot­ers. This time around, they say, the big­ger threat is do­mes­tic.

“The chal­lenges we face in this elec­tion are as much, if not more, in­ter­nal than ex­ter­nal – the in­ter­nal play­ers within Amer­i­can democ­racy try­ing to play the sys­tem, spread mis­in­for­ma­tion, spread po­lar­iza­tion, and so on,” Clegg said.

USA TODAY na­tional po­lit­i­cal re­porter Joey Gar­ri­son said the surge of a do­mes­tic threat is “pretty ex­tra­or­di­nary” given what we saw in 2016. Also new: The way bad ac­tors are in­fil­trat­ing our so­cial me­dia feeds.

“It isn’t just like a false ac­count,” said Gar­ri­son, who cov­ers vot­ing se­cu­rity. “In­stead, they’re either push­ing in­for­ma­tion to ac­tivists to feed their pool or they’re ap­proach­ing jour­nal­ists to steer their cov­er­age.”

Face­book has hired 35,000 peo­ple since 2016 to deal with the is­sues. They’re see­ing fewer big net­works of co­or­di­nated bad be­hav­ior (still, they’ve taken down more than 100 over the past three years) and more ef­forts to tar­get in­di­vid­u­als to “am­plify their mes­sage un­wit­tingly for them,” Gle­icher said.

And this is where it gets con­tro­ver­sial. What some peo­ple may think is mis­in­for­ma­tion or fake news, oth­ers will say is free­dom of speech.

“Wher­ever you draw the line, peo­ple crit­i­cize you,” Clegg said. “The right crit­i­cizes Face­book for tak­ing far too much con­tent down. The nar­ra­tive on the left is that we don’t take down enough and that (Face­book CEO) Mark Zucker­berg is in Don­ald Trump’s pocket. We need to try and come up with ob­jec­tive and co­her­ent ways to draw the line.”

Face­book has re­la­tion­ships with 70 in­de­pen­dent fact-check­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions world­wide to help iden­tify false, fake or al­tered con­tent. (USA TODAY is one of the or­ga­ni­za­tions.) When this con­tent is iden­ti­fied, either a fil­ter ap­pears over the post, warn­ing read­ers that it is ques­tion­able, or the con­tent is made less vis­i­ble. Face­book has no ed­i­to­rial in­put or con­trol.

So how is Face­book do­ing? How much fake or false in­for­ma­tion is get­ting through?

Gle­icher said they’re catch­ing bad ac­tors much faster, still, “You can never prove what you can’t see. What we do see is for­eign ac­tors and do­mes­tic ac­tors evolv­ing their tac­tics to try to de­feat our sys­tems.”

For ex­am­ple, the QAnon be­liev­ers no longer use terms that iden­tify them as Qs, Gle­icher said. “They’re pretty savvy about how to present as a right-of-cen­ter or­ga­ni­za­tion with­out show­ing too much ev­i­dence of the fact that they’re also as­so­ci­ated with some other ef­forts around Q.”

Civil rights au­di­tors in July warned that Face­book’s fail­ure to rein in toxic speech, racism and mis­in­for­ma­tion could sup­press voter turnout. USA TODAY tech re­porter Jes­sica Guynn asked what steps they’ve taken to ad­dress the find­ings.

Clegg said Face­book has re­moved around 100,000 pieces of Face­book and In­sta­gram con­tent be­tween March and May of this year that vi­o­lated their voter in­ter­fer­ence and sup­pres­sion pol­icy.

“We now re­move con­tent where there’s not just an ex­plicit, but an im­plicit, in­tent to dis­cour­age peo­ple from vot­ing or to say stuff that would lead to peo­ple for­feit­ing their right to vote,” he said. “We now ag­gres­sively la­bel any con­tent that seeks to dele­git­imize the way peo­ple are able to vote.”

Guynn fol­lowed up: In­clud­ing con­tent from the pres­i­dent of the United States?

“We have re­peat­edly, for in­stance, over the last cou­ple of weeks, la­beled posts from Don­ald Trump, which say that mail-in vot­ing is a fraud and is a racket and will lead to a fraud­u­lent elec­tion and so on,” Clegg said. “We put a great big la­bel on it that the user has to read if they are try­ing to read that con­tent, which says words to the ef­fect of mail-in vot­ing is a trust­wor­thy way of vot­ing, it has been for a long time in this coun­try, and it is pre­dicted to be so in this elec­tion as well.”

At the end of the day, is all this enough?

“I cer­tainly don’t want to sug­gest that we are in any way com­pla­cent, that we’re do­ing enough,” Clegg said. “... But I don’t think any rea­son­able per­son could sug­gest that the ex­tra­or­di­nary ef­forts that we have em­barked upon are not pretty am­bi­tious, pretty ex­cep­tional in scale.”

Guynn, based in San Fran­cisco, has cov­ered Face­book for 12 years. She says, “They’re cer­tainly talk­ing the talk. What is re­ally hap­pen­ing be­hind the scenes isn’t en­tirely clear.”

But she says Face­book is much more ag­gres­sive than in Novem­ber 2016, when Zucker­berg said the elec­tion was not in­flu­enced by the “small amount” of fake news that spread on the net­work.

“2020 is go­ing to be the big­gest test, ob­vi­ously, for Face­book and for other so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies,” she said. “For bet­ter or worse, they’ve be­come the gate­keep­ers for the elec­tion. That’s how cen­tral they are to Amer­i­can life th­ese days.”

“We’ve re­cruited a bunch of very spe­cial­ized folk to help us as a com­pany do the most metic­u­lous form of sce­nario plan­ning that we pos­si­bly can, from the non-sce­nar­ios to some ex­tremely wor­ry­ing ones. We now have re­la­tion­ships with elec­tion au­thor­i­ties on the ground in all the states across the coun­try.” Nick Clegg Face­book head of global af­fairs and com­mu­ni­ca­tion

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