Facebook is acknowledging that governments or other malicious non-state actors are using its social network to influence political sentiment in ways that could affect national elections.
It's a long way from CEO Mark Zuckerberg's assertion back in November that it was "pretty crazy" to think that false news on Facebook influenced the U.S. presidential election. It's also a major sign that the world's biggest social network is continuing to grapple with its outsized role in how the world communicates, for better or for worse.
In a paper posted online on Thursday, Facebook security researchers and its chief security officer said the company will monitor the efforts of those who try to hurt "civic discourse" on its service, whether that's governments or other groups. It is also looking to identify fake accounts, and says it will notify people if their accounts have been targeted by such cyberattackers.
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"(We) have had to expand our security focus from traditional abusive behavior, such as account hacking, malware, spam and financial scams, to include more subtle and insidious forms of misuse, including attempts to manipulate civic discourse and deceive people," the report states. It was written by researchers Jen Weedon and William Nuland and Facebook exec Alex Stamos and titled "Information Operations and Facebook."
The team defined "information operations" as any actions taken by governments or other actors to "distort domestic or foreign political sentiment" to achieve a strategic purpose. Such operations can include the dissemination of false news and disinformation and the use of fake-account networks aimed at manipulating public opinion through a variety of means.
Using the 2016 U.S. presidential election as an example, Facebook said it uncovered "several situations" where malicious actors used social media to "share information stolen from other sources, such as email accounts, with the intent of harming the reputation of specific political targets."
The company did not name the actors or the victims, but it said its data "does not contradict" a January report by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence that Russia tried to meddle with the U.S. election.
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Jonathan Albright, a professor who studies data journalism at Elon University in North Carolina, urged journalists and others back in February to look not just at the role of Facebook in spreading false or misleading information, but also at the sources of such information. That is, to attempt to identify both the producers of this material and those who spread it using social networks and other means.
Facebook's paper addresses the amplifiers of such content — the fake accounts that "like" and share false news stories, for example. The company has also announced steps to support legitimate journalism and news literacy. But the paper does not delve into ideas about attacking false news and propaganda at the source, including by banning such content from the site.
Currently, Facebook users who want to share an article that has been debunked by outside fact-checkers, for example, are able to do so after they get a warning from Facebook. Facebook has long held that it does not want to be the arbiter of truth — that it wants its users to decide for themselves (within limits of its terms of service) what they want to read and post.
But balancing a desire not to censor with a desire to weed out state-sponsored propaganda has been a challenging exercise for the company.