Facebook won’t say if it has seen evidence of Russian meddling on its social network ahead of the 2018 US midterm elections.
On a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, company representatives were asked multiple times if they had seen evidence, but dodged the question.
A Facebook employee said the company needs to be careful not to undermine any ongoing internal or government investigations.
During the 2016 US presidential election, Russian operatives used Facebook in an unprecedented information campaign – spreading misinformation and propaganda in support of Donald Trump’s candidacy.
As the 2018 midterm elections approach, are malicious actors attempting something similar again? Facebook won’t say.
The company held a conference call with reporters on Tuesday to discuss its “election integrity” work, from fighting fake news to building civic engagement tools.
Facebook representatives were asked multiple times whether the company has detected evidence of organised information campaigns like those seen in 2016. But executives refused to give a straight answer, citing the need to protect government and internal investigations.
Facebook dodged the yes-or-no question
The question was first posed by Kevin Roose of The New York Times, who asked: “Leading up to the 2018 midterms, have you detected any activity that looks like a coordinated information operation, coming either from the IRA [Internet Research Agency, a Russian-affiliated agency] or other actors, whether foreign or domestic? And what are some of the suspicious signs that you’re looking for specifically with regard to these elections?”
Nathaniel Gleicher, director of cybersecurity policy at Facebook, responded that Facebook expects Russia will attempt to interfere, but didn’t answer whether the company had direct evidence of this.
“Sure, we know that Russian and other bad actors are going to continue to try to use our platform, before the midterms, probably during the midterms, after the midterms, and probably around other events and elections,” Gleicher said. “We are continually looking for that type of activity, and as and when we find things, which we think is inevitable, we will notify law enforcement and, where we can, the public.”
Axios’ David McCabe followed up on this later on the call, asking: “I appreciate the context on how you’re addressing some of the midterm stuff, but I’m not entirely sure we got the answer to Kevin’s question, which was: Do you have evidence so far? You said you expected stuff for the midterms, but have you seen evidence so far of any disinformation campaigns aimed at disrupting the midterms? So I was hoping you could give us just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on whether or not the company’s seen that.”
A “yes” or “no” was not forthcoming. After a pause, Gleicher reiterated his earlier statement: “As I said before right, when we find things and as we find things and we expect that we will, we’re going to notify law enforcement and we’re going to notify the public where we can.”
Another Times reporter tried once more: “Let me just follow up on that. So in other words, you can’t tell us what you found so far? That’s kinda my takeaway.”
The Facebook employee responded: “I said before that we’re looking for this sort of activity and these are ongoing investigations, and one of the things we have to be really careful with here is that as we think about how we answer these questions, we need to be careful that we aren’t compromising investigations we might be running or investigations the government might be running.”
Facebook is stuck between a rock and a hard place
Facebook’s reluctance to answer illustrates the bind the company finds itself in.
Reeling from numerous scandals, the company has pledged to be more transparent and responsive. But at the same time, it needs to be careful not to undermine ongoing investigations into future malicious activity, which could risk further damaging its reputation with the public.
The company has made a number of changes since the 2016 elections to try and cut down on coordinated information campaigns like the one waged by Russia. It is cracking down on fake accounts, reducing the circulation of fake news in its News Feed, and requiring users who want to buy political ads to go through an identity verification process.
In March 2018, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he was “sure” that Russia would try to use Facebook to meddle in the midterm elections – though similarly he didn’t specify whether Facebook had found evidence of this.
“I’m sure someone’s trying. Right? And I’m sure that there’s V2, version two of whatever the Russian effort was in 2016,” the technology executive said. “I’m sure they’re working on that, and there are going to be some new tactics that we need to make sure that we observe and get in front of.”
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