Facebook Had to Nuke a Bunch of Russian Bots Right as It Bragged It's Ready for 2020

State media outlets are going to get special labeling in the News Feed.
October 21, 2019, 7:18pm
mark zuckerberg

Facebook wants to make it harder for state-backed media outlets to blend into your News Feed. It also knows the Kremlin’s shit-posting operation — the one that was so successful in 2016 — is likely to evolve in response.

The latest chapter in that cat-and-mouse game came Monday, when CEO Mark Zuckerberg said his company will put labels on state-controlled press organs as part of its new slate of election-security measures. He also announced that his company had suspended hundreds of accounts across Facebook and Instagram that were part of disinformation campaigns by Iran and Russia.

It was an early preview of how the next year will play out between the tech giant that's home to much of the world’s political communication and U.S. adversaries trying to tip the scales.

“We face increasingly sophisticated attacks from nation-states like Russia, Iran, and China,” Zuckerberg said. “We’re getting better. They’re getting better.”

READ: Mark Zuckerberg wants you to know he cares 'deeply' about conservative bias

In a conference call Monday, Zuckerberg and other top brass unveiled new guardrails to protect against misinformation and foreign election meddling. They included more prominent disclaimers for fact-checked content, new rules to shed light on who’s behind individual Pages, and a labeling system for propaganda.

The Russian government reached millions of American Facebook users through both overt and covert means in the last presidential election. Kremlin-backed groups pushed ads and organic content on divisive social issues using fake accounts. And state media outlets such as RT and Sputnik published political coverage that was relentlessly anti-Hillary Clinton.

Zuckerberg said Facebook’s new policy for such content intends to distinguish between publicly financed media with independent newsrooms and state-controlled outlets “acting as an organ of the government rather than a free press.”

How the company defines propaganda could rankle organizations like RT, which boasts 1.1 million followers on its U.S.-focused page. A Facebook spokesperson said Monday that he “can't speak to every publisher that we are going to label” when VICE News inquired about RT, but the outlet has been on the receiving end of Facebook policy enforcement in the past.

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Company officials also trumpeted their more proactive defense against covert influence campaigns using fake accounts. Three of the operations thwarted on Monday originated in Iran, Facebook said in a blog post, while another came from the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency, a group that interfered in the 2016 election.

That latter campaign comprised 50 Instagram accounts and one Facebook account that produced content focusing on racial tensions, the Confederacy, and other divisive topics. They combined for 246,000 followers across platforms.

Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, said Monday that those efforts will likely grow in scale over the next year.

“It is fairly early in their operational cycle. They were still trying to build their audience,” he said. “We were able to find them and stop them before they were able to complete their operation.”

READ: Mark Zuckerberg is apparently headhunting for Mayor Pete now

Gleicher also warned that domestic actors are playing a growing role in sowing discord on Facebook around the world. Those efforts are in some cases harder to track and more effective. Facebook tweaked its policies Monday to hone in on homegrown bot networks in response.

“If you want to manipulate the public debate, you have to understand the public debate,” he said.

Facebook claims it has disrupted 50 attempts to interfere in elections around the world in the past year, though — unlike Twitter — it releases little data about those efforts. It has also unveiled a new Ad Library for political and issues ads that allows watchdogs to follow campaign spending and messaging. Some researchers have criticized the tool for preventing bulk data collection.

Washington carries out its own influence operations abroad through the U.S. Agency for Global Media, bringing Americanized news to more than 100 countries through outlets including Voice of America. While the agency has launched 24/7 news networks in Russian and Farsi in recent years, with a Mandarin outlet in the works, the Kremlin is still outgunning the U.S. government in the infowar.

“I don’t know exactly what they invest in RT and in Sputnik and in other Russian media, but I know it’s more than what the United States government invests,” John Lansing, then-CEO of the agency, said at a July hearing before the House of Representatives. “I think it’s around a 10x factor.”

That long-term strategy has left disinformation researchers still pointing to Moscow as a primary threat next year.

“The Kremlin is a chaos monster,” Jed Willard, global engagement director of the FDR Foundation at Harvard, previously told VICE News. “Their frame is Americans can’t trust Americans.”

Cover: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Georgetown University in a 'Conversation on Free Expression" in Washington, D.C., on October 17, 2019. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)