The Dallas Morning News
Feds single out social network in 2016 election scheme
SAN FRANCISCO — In 2014, Russians working for a shadowy firm called the Internet Research Agency started gathering American followers in online groups focused on issues such as religion and immigration. Around mid2015, the Russians began buying digital ads to spread their messages. A year later, they tapped their followers to help organize political rallies across the United States.
Their digital instrument of choice for all of these actions? Facebook and its photo-sharing site Instagram.
The social network, more than any other technology tool, was singled out on Friday by the Justice Department when prosecutors charged 13 Russians and three companies for executing a scheme to subvert the 2016 election and support Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
In a 37-page indictment, officials detailed how the Russians repeatedly turned to Facebook and Instagram, often using stolen identities to pose as Americans, to sow discord among the electorate by creating Facebook groups, distributing divisive ads and posting inflammatory images — including one event called “Down with Hillary,” which included an image of Clinton with a black “X” painted across her face.
While the indictment did not charge Facebook, it provided the first comprehensive account from officials of how critical the company’s platforms had been to the Russian campaign to disrupt the 2016 election. Facebook and Instagram were mentioned 41 times, while other technology that the Russians used were featured far less. Twitter was referenced nine times, YouTube once, and the electronic payments company PayPal 11 times.
Facebook, with more than 2 billion members on the social network alone, has long struggled with what its sites show and the kind of illicit activity it may enable, from selling unlicensed guns to broadcasting live killings. The company’s business depends on people being engaged with what is posted on its sites, which in turn helps make it a marquee destination for advertisers.
When suggestions arose after the 2016 election that Facebook might have influenced the outcome, Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive, dismissed the concerns. But by September, Facebook had disclosed that the Internet Research Agency had bought divisive ads on hot-button issues through the company. It later said 150 million Americans had seen the Russian propaganda on the social network and Instagram.
The resulting firestorm has damaged Facebook’s reputation. Company officials, along with executives from Google and YouTube, were grilled by lawmakers this past fall. Facebook has since hired thousands of people to help monitor content and has worked with Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the investigation into Russian election interference. It has also changed its advertising policy so that any ad that mentions a candidate’s name goes through a more stringent vetting process. Zuckerberg has vowed not to let Facebook be abused by bad actors.
Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of global policy, said in a statement that the company was grateful the government was taking action “against those who abused our service and exploited the openness of our democratic process.”
He added that Facebook has been working with the FBI before this year’s midterm elections to ensure that a similar manipulation campaign won’t take place. “We know we have more to do to prevent against future attacks,” he said.
Facebook has previously questioned whether law enforcement should be more involved in helping to stop the threat from nation-state actors. Facebook said it worked closely with the special counsel’s investigation.
YouTube did not respond to a request for comment, while Twitter declined to comment. PayPal said in a statement that it had worked closely with law enforcement.