Facebook Hews To Democratic Party Line on 2016 Election Manipulation

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends most of her time in Asia and is currently researching a book about textile artisans. She also writes regularly about legal, political economy, and regulatory topics for various consulting clients and publications, as well as scribbles occasional travel pieces for The National.

To those who’ve been paying attention to the chatter that Mark Zuckerberg is considering a run for President, yesterday’s Facebook announcement outlining measures the company intends to implement against “information operations” that attempt to manipulate public opinion will come as no surprise.

The company’s white paper, Information Operations and Facebooking implicitly endorses the true-Blue Team Democrat narrative on the 2016 election. Rather than recognising that the dogs just didn’t want to eat the dog food and pull the lever for Hillary, the problem is traced to evil machinations on the part of foreign governments.

A couple of disclaimers up front. This post is not intended to be the last word on this subject.  Nor wilI I parse Facebook’s intended counter-measures against these nefarious information operations in any detail.  Instead, I serve up these thoughts alongside some criticism of how the issue has been covered, with the intention of sparking discussion among the commentariat about the broader issues raised.

Electoral Impact of Information Operations

Permit me to quote at length from the section of Facebook’s white paper rather snoozingly headed “A Case Study of a Recent Election”:

During the 2016 US Presidential election season, we responded to several situations that we assessed to fit the pattern of information operations. We have no evidence of any Facebook accounts being compromised as part of this activity, but, nonetheless, we detected and monitored these efforts in order to protect the authentic connections that define our platform.

One aspect of this included malicious actors leveraging conventional and social media to share information stolen from other sources, such as email accounts, with the intent of harming the reputation of specific political targets. These incidents employed a relatively straightforward yet deliberate series of actions:

• Private and/or proprietary information was accessed and stolen from systems and services (outside of Facebook);

• Dedicated sites hosting this data were registered;

• Fake personas were created on Facebook and elsewhere to point to and amplify awareness
of this data;

• Social media accounts and pages were created to amplify news accounts of and direct people to the stolen data.

• From there, organic proliferation of the messaging and data through authentic peer groups and networks was inevitable.

Concurrently, a separate set of malicious actors engaged in false amplification using inauthentic Facebook accounts to push narratives and themes that reinforced or expanded on some of the topics exposed from stolen data. Facebook conducted research into overall civic engagement during this time on the platform, and determined that the reach of the content shared by false amplifiers was marginal compared to the overall volume of civic content shared during the US election.

In short, while we acknowledge the ongoing challenge of monitoring and guarding against information operations, the reach of known operations during the US election of 2016 was statistically very small compared to overall engagement on political issues.

Facebook is not in a position to make definitive attribution to the actors sponsoring this activity. It is important to emphasize that this example case comprises only a subset of overall activities tracked and addressed by our organization during this time period; however our data does not contradict the attribution provided by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence in the report dated January 6, 2017. (citations omitted).

Just a couple of points here. First, notice that in the paragraph alleging “malicious actors leveraging conventional and 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 white paper conveniently fails to mention that the information being shared just happened to be true.  As far as I’m aware, no one has challenged the veracity of compromising information released prior to the election, such as that contained in releases by Wikileaks of material including John Podesta’s emails. Because surely if the information obtained were bogus, we would have seen the rebuttals by now.

Do you see the words “fake news” anywhere here?  Or any equivalent? I didn’t think so.

Second, even in a white paper that presents a rationale for why Facebook has decided it must take action against “false amplification”, the authors want to have it both ways and concede “the reach of known operations during the US election of 2016 was statistically very small compared to overall engagement on political issues. “ So, Facebook, is false amplification a problem, or isn’t it? And if it is a problem, how serious is it? Is it sufficiently serious to warrant offsetting measures? Announced measures such as cracking down on false accounts seems sensible, but I do worry about the precedential implications of Facebook’s decision to take countervailing measures in a situation where the truthfulness of information being shared is not disputed– especially in light of all the high-minded rhetoric in the rest of the white paper about preserving the proprieties of civic engagement.

Politics ain’t beanbag, and why shouldn’t political discourse– which frequently concerns what William Connolly in his The Terms of Political Discourse has called “essentially contested concepts”– be intense? After all, life and death issues are at stake.  Connolly’s work implies that the relentless quest for bipartisan consensus may be a fool’s errand. Given what’s up for grabs in political decisions, should we expect political debate to be decorous? To put it another way, is a tamping down of disagreement necessarily a virtue?

And then we have the final suck-up to the Team Blue narrative (cue spooky music here):

Facebook is not in a position to make definitive attribution to the actors sponsoring this activity. It is important to emphasize that this example case comprises only a subset of overall activities tracked and addressed by our organization during this time period; however our data does not contradict the attribution provided by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence in the report dated January 6, 2017.

In other words, to state the obvious, readers are expected to fill in the blanks and conclude that the Russians did it– even though, as regular readers know, there are multiple problems with that story.

Amplifying Facebook’s Pro-Team Blue Message

As was no doubt intended, the Facebook white paper is being spun to amplify the Team Blue message. Somewhat amusingly, Facebook’s announcement that it’s going to wage war on false amplification is itself being amplified to reinforce Team Blue’s narrative.

Let me provide a flavour from some accounts.

BBC. See, for example, the BBC’s take. First we get the hysteria:

Facebook has admitted that it observed attempts to spread propaganda on its site, apparently orchestrated by governments or organised parties. 

The firm has seen “false news, disinformation, or networks of fake accounts aimed at manipulating public opinion”, it revealed in a new report.

“Several” such cases during the US presidential election last year required action, it added.

Some of the activity has been of a “wide-scale coordinated” nature.

We need to read to get to the next, the fourth graph (excluding the bolded sub-head) before the BBC tells us: “Fake accounts were created to spread information stolen from email accounts during the 2016 US presidential election, the firm noted, though it said the volume of such activity was ‘statistically very small’– and even this quote omitted the crucial  qualifier (taken from the white paper text reproduced above) “compared to overall engagement on political issues”. Moreover, the BBC also failed to share the inconvenient truth that the stolen information was highly relevant to the election and just happened to be true.

CNET. Let’s turn to CNET now. Again, bear with me as I quote the first four paragraphs:

Facebook is beefing up its attack on fake news by targeting coordinated campaigns aiming to use false information to sway political opinions on the social network.

Facebook has evolved into a forum for political debate in recent years, but some organizations have used the network to distort political sentiment for a specific geopolitical outcome, including during the recent elections in the US and France, Facebook said Thursday in a white paper (PDF). The social media giant said it has a responsibility to keep its community safe for authentic civic engagement, free from the influences of what it calls “information operations.”

Facebook explained, “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 abundance of fake news on the internet in the lead-up to President Donald Trump’s victory last year has become a hot-button issue, entangling tech giants like Facebook and Google. Numerous allegations say the fake news shared on the social networks helped Trump win (links omitted).

Now, I read this as suggesting at minimum that the claim “fake news shared on the social networks helped Trump win” is consistent with the Facebook white paper. But that’s not at all what the relevant section said now, is it?

I could go on in a similar vein but I’ll stop here, since I said at the outset the post is by no means intended to be comprehensive, and I think risk trying the patience of readers by continuing to quote other examples in a similar vein.

Zuckerberg Reversal?

Before I conclude, I’d like to make one final point. Sources such as CNN Money (as well as the Reuters and CNET accounts quoted above) are reading the latest Facebook news as a major reversal:

Facebook owning its role in shaping current events is a big change from what CEO Mark Zuckerberg initially said after the U.S. election.

“I think the idea that fake news on Facebook … influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,” Zuckerberg said at a conference in November.

He later walked back those comments, and said in February that it was Facebook’s responsibility “to amplify the good effects and mitigate the bad.”

Now, perhaps I’m missing something here, as this is not an issue about which I can honestly claim I’ve immersed myself in all relevant details. So in what I write here I’m relying instead on the plain words of the white paper. And I reiterate that the relevant text of that paper devoted to the 2016 US presidential election says nothing about fake news, but instead discusses at length information operations that included “malicious actors leveraging conventional and social media to share information stolen from other sources, such as email accounts, with the intent of harming the reputation of specific political targets.”

Instead, another section of the white paper identified the core problem here as “False amplification, which we define as coordinated activity by inauthentic accounts with the intent of manipulating political discussion (e.g., by discouraging specific parties from participating in discussion or amplifying sensationalistic voices over others). We detect this activity by analyzing the inauthenticity of the account and its behaviors, and not the content the accounts are publishing (my emphasis citations omitted).” Notice, however, that what’s being discussed here isn’t “fake news” at all but amplifying news that is anything but.

So I’m not sure how much of a reversal the latest action actually represents. While the wink and nod to the report saying the Russians did it is clear (as quoted above), that’s certainly not the same thing as saying fake news swayed the election.

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  1. djrichard

    Funny how everything is laissez faire until the powers-that-be don’t get the outcome they want.

    P.S. I suspect China would approve of Facebook’s approach to governance, for the good of the populace.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      I hope they do crack down on everything they deem unworthy. If enough people get sick of it, people may realize that Fleecebook ≠ the internet and is not the only place to find out what’s going on in the world.

      And regarding your comment RE: China, I read a great short story on the subject from this Chinese scifi anthology, Invisible Planets. It takes a reductio ad absurdum approach to the censorship issue and judging by Zuckerberg’s actions recently, he’s well on the way to making fiction a reality.

  2. YankeeFrank

    False amplification is a meaningless concept. Amplification is a neutral process. There is nothing false about amplifying truth.

    1. Mel

      It might be that the distinction they’re trying to make is between
      a) something that is properly a paid political advertisement
      b) a heartfelt expression of opinion by a Facebook member like you

      Presenting a) in the guise of b) would be tempting you to turn up the gain on the amplification, for the wrong reasons.

    2. aletheia33

      how about the use of “stolen”?

      >Private and/or proprietary information was accessed and stolen from systems and services (outside of Facebook);<

      does this mean that every time a bit of my personal info gets "lifted" from my browser history, it's "theft"? just wondering.

    3. Scott

      Thanks. I was wondering what the He’ll HE’LL DAMN IT spellcheck how I was supposed to understand that.

  3. NeqNeq

    Something else to consider (in addition to Jerri-Lynn’s commentary):

    The National Defense Authorization Act for FY2017 (section 1259C) establishes a Global Engagement Center to identify and combat foreign information operations. Of particular relevance (to my potentially tinfoil addled brain) is subsection (f):

    “The Center is authorized to provide grants or contracts of financial support to civil society groups, journalists, nongovernmental organizations, federally-funded research and development centers, private companies, or academic institutions for the following purposes:

    (A) To support local independent media who are best placed to refute foreign disinformation and manipulation in their own communities.

    (B) To collect and store examples in print, online, and social media, disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda directed at the United States and its allies and partners.

    ( C) To analyze and report on tactics, techniques, and procedures of foreign government information warfare with respect to disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda.

    (D) To support efforts by the Center to counter efforts by foreign governments to use disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda to influence the policies and social and political stability of the United States and United States allies and partners.”

    In order to qualify:

    “(2) FUNDING AVAILABILITY AND LIMITATIONS.—The Secretary of State shall provide that each organization that applies to receive funds under this subsection undergoes a vetting process in accordance with the relevant existing regulations to ensure its bona fides, capability, and experience, and its compatibility with United States interests and objectives.”

    We are rapidly approaching the 180day mark (mandatory timeframe for the creation of the center). I do not find it surprising at all that Facebook, Google, Wikipedia, etc are all announcing initiatives to keep those damn foreigners from manipulating the minds of poor, poor, Americans.

    They are merely publicly signaling that they have the capability, experience, and interests/objectives that are compatible with the powers-that-be. Thats one reason why the white paper could be so….noncommital in its language wrt HRC campaign specific narratives (while seemingly refrerencing them at the same time). Gotta be careful with verbiage if you want to maximize grant money!


    1. anonymous

      I like this: “To support local independent media who are best placed to refute foreign disinformation and manipulation in their own communities”

      Why don’t do this to counter the local dependent media disinformation, which is undoubtedly more harmful than foreign fake news. This local disinformation also spreads into international media.
      NPR e.g. could get rid of their BBC Worldnews state propaganda arm and be truly independent.

  4. Sluggeaux

    Team Blue: “It’s not that we’re liars — it’s that we were exposed as liars.”

    I’m concerned about the Facebook White Paper’s acceptance of the assumption that Podesta’s emails were stolen. I haven’t seen anything contradicting the theory that they weren’t stolen but were actually leaked by someone at the DNC with access and a conscience about the secrecy that Team Blue and their candidate were using to falsely message to the public differently than they were messaging to their Wall Street and Military-Industrial Complex benefactors.

    The subtext of the White Paper is that “stolen” information shouldn’t be amplified on the Facebook platform, whether true or not. The actual fake news being disseminated during the 2016 campaign were the Dem’s claims that HRC’s positions on issues important to average Americans were different than what she was telling her funders behind closed doors. The exposure of Team Blue’s falsehoods as “fake news” turned-off the nearly 75% of eligible voters who didn’t vote for their candidate.

    However, Facebook appears to now be suggesting that it should engage in suppression of the amplification of true information that comes from whistleblowers and leakers who expose the hypocrisy and prevarication of those in positions of power. I’m grateful to leakers, from Deep Throat through Ed Snowden, for exposing the evil — however well-intentioned — that our government engages in.

    This White Paper moves Facebook in a very sinister direction, suggesting that they have every intention of enabling cover-ups of the truth.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      That’s an excellent point regarding Facebook’s acceptance of the assumption that Podesta’s emails were stolen rather than leaked and the implications that follow from that. I wish I’d included it in the post.

    2. B

      Geeesh, the info is readily available if you cared to spend a few minutes looking. Podesta was the victim of a phishing attack: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/13/us/politics/russia-hack-election-dnc.html?_r=1


      Stolen is the correct way to describe what happened while whistleblower or leaker is not. The issue is not that one side was lying while the other was not, its that only one side was targeted for attack and therefore only their hypocrisy was exposed. I think its pretty obvious BOTH sides have/had hypocrisy issues at this point.

      1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

        Let me clarify further. You’re correct that info about the acquisition of Podesta’s emails was widely known and I was certainly aware of it. So as to keep the post to a manageable length, I opted to focus on the points I did rather than the means by which info– including but not limited to the Podesta emails– was obtained. But in light of the last couple of comments, further discussion of that “stolen” assumption and its implications would have added to the post.

      2. Sluggeaux

        There were emails other than Podesta’s in play. There still could be a leaker. I’m not entirely convinced that is was phishing alone.

        The point here is that Obama and the CIA would characterize the Manning and Snowden materials as “stolen,” which puts Facebook’s characterization, which isn’t specific to the Podesta trove, at issue.

        See Mark Ames’ piece yesterday for why Clinton was targeted. There’s a grudge which is legitimate. Giving us our own asset-stripping “Yeltsin” is the perfect revenge…

      3. likbez

        Only Nsa knows the real source of leaks
        The fact that Podesta revealed his password to some random phishing attack makes this source more plausible, but far from the only possible. In this area false flags are common and that attack can well be the part of cover up.

  5. JoeT

    Zuckerberg is in Detroit and being feted by Bill Ford. Apparently he’s the new corporate approved candidate for 2020.

  6. Arizona Slim

    Thank you for giving me yet another reason why I should cut back on Facebook.

    BTW, I’m a lot less involved with that site than I used to be. And I’m feeling a lot better, TYVM.

  7. Emma

    This is all really becoming exasperating!
    Incessantly reporting 24/7 on whether the Russians did it or not doesn’t take into account the critical failure by a leading political party of the “free world” – a nation supposedly at the forefront of technology – to appropriately secure their digital communications along with those of a potential POTUS. This is a question of how US government, or a potential one, works, and how it should work in the future. The validity of outrage anyway vis-a-vis the Russians, is, to some extent, misplaced (…..everyone’s doin’ it aren’t they? For starters, recall the Time cover of’ ’96: http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19960715,00.html )
    Perhaps this whole fiasco is just one more example of a uniquely placed group of politicos and media hacks with special interests, having no particular interest in the right interests…..
    One ‘evil’ nation alone stealing the US election brings as little comfort as one ‘good’ party endangering an election. Let alone citizens and the basics like clean and accessible drinking water. I wouldn’t hire the DNC to run a kindergarten. Besides, real little kids do the right thing: http://www.kidsgiving365.org/flint-michigan-had-water-problems-so-7-year-old-boy-wanted-to-help/
    It’s not that the Russians are destroying the credibility of the DNC. The DNC has done a great job of this all by itself, and it casts serious doubt on just what the DNC can actually do well, and for the service of the American people.
    But hey, as we see here, the invisible hand is obviously going to fix whatever the actual big deal is, isn’t it? And the solution? A new deal…..with a new billionaire. Next time in the guise of Mark Zuckerberg. But probably just as useful as Trump and the House Republicans, or math without numbers. For though billionaire qualities might be deemed best to rule the world, they amount to nothing if your average American is still stuck at that desert point zero still struggling with basic and fundamental human rights.
    Surely the value of an influential nation ends up being a zero sum gain for the entire world if its leaders constantly grasp the ‘valuables’ over the ‘values’?
    Therefore, since it’s Arbor Day in the US today, I’d suggest we all yell out for ‘Tarsanders’!
    That way, a far greater number of Americans can get to the top of a tree, rightly so, with a full water bottle in hand, and really ‘MAGA’.

  8. Knifecatcher

    I’m pretty sure the quote is “Politics ain’t beanbag”. Beanball is another thing entirely, and winging a 90 MPH fastball at your opponent’s head is kind of the whole point in politics.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      You’re correct– fixed it. Don’t know whether that was due to my fat fingers or to autocorrect, but thanks for catching the error and drawing it to my attention.

  9. Ptolemy Philopater

    Let’s me get this straight. A fatuous blowhard sexual predator with the highest negative ratings of any presidential candidate ever, was given billions of dollars of free publicity and set up to run against an establishment candidate with the second highest negative ratings of all time, who had to place ads on Craigs List to fill her conventions Hall in Philadelphia in a change election, so she wouldn’t have to run on her platform which the electorate had already rejected and could instead campaign by demonizing her opponent with the full support of a bought and paid for media, while at the same time rigging the primaries to win the nomination.

    Subsequently, the leading contender for the French Presidency, conservative Francois Fillon was handicapped by a long standing corruption scandal revealed for the election, in order to set up an election between a synthetic candidate who had participated in a government thoroughly rejected by the French electorate and a proto-fascist National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen, so that he wouldn’t have to run on his platform, again already totally rejected by the electorate and could campaign instead by demonizing his fascist opponent with the total support of the French media; but it was the Russians that manipulated the American and French elections. Sacre bleu, what a coincidence! Now that’s amplification for you!

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