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Facebook won’t say if it has evidence of information campaigns in 2018 midterms

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facebook ceo mark zuckerberg
Facebook
co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify
before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing
in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 10, 2018
in Washington, DC.

Chip
Somodevilla/Getty Images


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 organized 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.”


fake Russia facebook ad
A post from an
anti-Hillary Clinton Facebook pages run by Russian operatives
during the 2016 election.

US House
Intel Committee


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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