Election meddling is Facebook’s next adversary, and it’s got a
plan to attack it just like it did with fake news. Solutions to
both these scourges come too late to prevent tampering that may
have aided Donald Trump winning the presidency — but at least
Facebook is owning up to the problem, working with the
government and starting to self-regulate. Here’s the nine-point plan Zuckerberg has devised to
combat election interference, plus our commentary on each
strategy’s potential.

One: Providing Russian-bought ads to Congress
– “We are actively working with the US government on its
ongoing investigations into Russian interference. We have been
investigating this for many months, and for a while we had
found no evidence of fake accounts linked to Russia running
ads. When we recently uncovered this activity, we provided that
information to the special counsel. We also briefed Congress —
and this morning I directed our team to provide the ads we’ve
found to Congress as well. As a general rule, we are limited in
what we can discuss publicly about law enforcement
investigations, so we may not always be able to share our
findings publicly. But we support Congress in deciding how to
best use this information to inform the public, and we expect
the government to publish its findings when their investigation
is complete.”

TC – Facebook initially shared more
information with Special Counsel Robert Mueller than Congress,
but after checking to make sure it won’t violate privacy laws,
it’s giving the Russian-bought ads to Congress
too
. This could aid their investigation while preventing
them from legally extracting the information from Facebook in a
messy public ordeal.

Two: Continuing Facebook’s own investigation
“We will continue our investigation into what happened on
Facebook in this election. We may find more, and if we do, we
will continue to work with the government. We are looking into
foreign actors, including additional Russian groups and other
former Soviet states, as well as organizations like the
campaigns, to further our understanding of how they used our
tools. These investigations will take some time, but we will
continue our thorough review.”

TC – Facebook’s depth of access to its
systems means it could surface evidence of election
interference that Mueller or Congress can’t get from just the
data Facebook provides. Facebook needs to review not just its
advertising systems and fake news in the News Feed, but also
use of Events, chat, user profiles, Groups and its other apps
like Instagram and WhatsApp.

Three: Political ad transparency – “Going
forward — and perhaps the most important step we’re taking —
we’re going to make political advertising more transparent.
When someone buys political ads on TV or other media, they’re
required by law to disclose who paid for them. But you still
don’t know if you’re seeing the same messages as everyone else.
So we’re going to bring Facebook to an even higher standard of
transparency. Not only will you have to disclose which page
paid for an ad, but we will also make it so you can visit an
advertiser’s page and see the ads they’re currently running to
any audience on Facebook. We will roll this out over the coming
months, and we will work with others to create a new standard
for transparency in online political ads.”

TC – Facebook has held that ads are user
content and therefore it could violate privacy to disclose the
content and targeting of all ads. Businesses see their ads and
targeting schemes as proprietary secrets. But when it comes to
election and political advertising, the public good may need to
be prioritized above corporate privacy. Building this
transparency system may be complicated, and most users might
not take the time to use it, but it could assist investigators
and provide peace of mind.

Four: Political ad reviews – “We will
strengthen our ad review process for political ads. To be
clear, it has always been against our policies to use any of
our tools in a way that breaks the law — and we already have
many controls in place to prevent this. But we can do more.
Most ads are bought programmatically through our apps and
website without the advertiser ever speaking to anyone at
Facebook. That’s what happened here. But even without our
employees involved in the sales, we can do better.”

TC – The lack of stronger oversight of
political ad buying given the contentious 2016 U.S.
presidential election may have been one of Facebook’s most
obvious mistakes. It needs to do a better job of understanding
when scale isn’t an excuse for weak monitoring of this highly
sensitive type of advertising. Facebook has long touted its
ability to influence people, but didn’t put sufficient
safeguards in place to prevent unethical or illegal influence
campaigns.

Bonus
Facebook admits it can’t block all the
interference
– “Now, I’m not going to sit here and
tell you we’re going to catch all bad content in our system. We
don’t check what people say before they say it, and frankly, I
don’t think our society should want us to. Freedom means you
don’t have to ask permission first, and that by default you can
say what you want. If you break our community standards or the
law, then you’re going to face consequences afterwards. We
won’t catch everyone immediately, but we can make it harder to
try to interfere.”

TC – It’s good to see Facebook being
honest about its limitations here. It’s built a community too
big to perfectly police, and accepting that is the first step
to getting closer to satisfactory protection.

Five: Hiring 250 more election integrity
workers
 – “We are increasing our investment in
security and specifically election integrity. In the next year,
we will more than double the team working on election
integrity. In total, we’ll add more than 250 people across all
our teams focused on security and safety for our community.”

TC – Again, this is something Facebook should
have known to do before the 2016 election. It’s earning more
than $3 billion in profit per quarter, so it can easily afford
this staff increase. It’s merely a matter of Facebook
foreseeing the worst-case scenarios of how its products could
be used, which it’s repeatedly failed to do.

Six: Partnerships with election commissions
“We will expand our partnerships with election commissions
around the world. We already work with electoral commissions in
many countries to help people register to vote and learn about
the issues. We’ll keep doing that, and now we’re also going to
establish a channel to inform election commissions of the
online risks we’ve identified in their specific elections.”

TC – Rather than simply reacting to election
interference, it’s smart for Facebook to proactively seek to
provide information to election commissions while also
educating the public in order to inoculate them against
malicious influence.

Seven: Collaboration with other tech
companies
 – “We will increase sharing of threat
information with other tech and security companies. We already
share information on bad actors on the internet through
programs like ThreatExchange, and now we’re exploring ways we
can share more information about anyone attempting to interfere
with elections. It is important that tech companies collaborate
on this because it’s almost certain that any actor trying to
misuse Facebook will also be trying to abuse other internet
platforms too.”

TC – Facebook already does this to protect
people across the internet from terrorist propaganda and child
pornography. As the largest social network, it has the
opportunity to serve as a central hub for connecting services
like Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat and Google to ensure strategies
for blocking election interference are propagated across the
web.

Eight: Protecting political discourse from
intimidation
– “We are working proactively to
strengthen the democratic process. Beyond pushing back against
threats, we will also create more services to protect our
community while engaging in political discourse. For example,
we’re looking at adapting our anti-bullying systems to protect
against political harassment as well, and we’re scaling our
ballot information tools to help more people understand the
issues.”

TC – Beyond broadcast forms of interference
like ads, fake news and events, Facebook users are vulnerable
to being shouted down for voicing reasonable political
opinions. While these attacks deal with a person’s viewpoints
rather than their inherent identity, like most bullying,
Facebook can efficiently repurpose existing technologies to
suspend accounts that try to disrupt civil discourse.

Nine: Monitoring the German election –
“We have been working to ensure the integrity of the German
elections this weekend, from taking actions against thousands
of fake accounts, to partnering with public authorities like
the Federal Office for Information Security, to sharing
security practices with the candidates and parties. We’re also
examining the activity of accounts we’ve removed and have not
yet found a similar type of effort in Germany. This is
incredibly important and we have been focused on this for a
while.”

TC – For Facebook to start earning back public
trust, it needs to show it can block a significant amount of
the attempted interference in elections. This weekend’s German
election is a good opportunity for this. If Facebook is seen as
inadequately defending democratic processes after being put in
the spotlight, it risks even more stringent backlash.

Overall, Facebook’s plan is sensible, even if it comes a year
later than needed. Hopefully its mistakes and the general
naiveté of tech companies and the public toward election
interference will lead to a swing far in the other direction as
the world wakes up to how sophisticated attacks on democracy
have become.

You can watch Zuckerberg’s announcement video of this new
initiative below:

Additional reporting by Jonathan Shieber

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