Facebook is fighting false news. Is it enough?
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