The reputations of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg are in tatters today after a long expose in the New York Times that examined how the pair dealt with the rolling crisis that engulfed the company during and after the 2016 elections that saw Donald Trump elected under a cloud of suspicion that he had help from Russia.
The story has been picked up on cable news and it paints a picture of a company led by two executives more interested in company growth than anything else. The story includes examples of attempts to pass the blame on to others, withholding useful information from investigators and repeated denials of culpability when the known facts inside the company said otherwise.
Most significantly, it shows a company in constant reactive mode in part because no one seemed to have a moral center, a clear sense of right and wrong, and the fortitude to take the right actions for customers and the country regardless of how those actions might hurt the executives or damage the company’s reputation.
A day earlier, the Times also published a three-part video, “Operation Infektion,” describing a decades-long effort by the Kremlin to spread fake news (active measures) about the West and the US especially in an effort to weaken its adversaries. The overlap between the stories hasn’t received as much attention in the media, which is a shame because social media became the accelerant in an act of political arson.
There’s a lot of information already available on the debacle so let’s skip ahead to Infektion to get a big picture view of how Russia’s use of Facebook damaged society in the West and how its repercussions will play out for a long time.
The most relevant part of the Times video series comes in part 2 dealing with the seven commandments of active measures, a term that encompasses Russia’s approach to spreading fake information to the detriment of the West. The seven commandments are,
Find the cracks—social, economic, linguistic, religious, or ethnic issues that can be exploited and wedge them open. This can include almost anything from gender issues, to religion, to immigration and abortion. You get the picture. Russia started out picking sides but grew to realize it could manipulate both sides of any issue to manufacture discord. There are examples of confrontations during the 2016 election in which both sides were galled into action by Russian efforts, often on Facebook.
Create a big bold lie—something that is so outrageous no one would believe it was made up. Example, the AIDS virus was manufactured by the US to hurt minorities and escaped from a lab at Fort Detrick, MD, where it was supposedly made.
A kernel of truth—provide a speck of facts to make the lie more believable. The US does have labs that work on viruses and ways to combat them in war. Fort Detrick is one place where this research goes on. The kernel of truth in this case is the name of the lab assigned blame for the fictional virus release.
Conceal your hand, make it seem like the story came from elsewhere. The first mention of the AIDS story came from a small paper in India and it took years for it to percolate through the journalism community in the 1980s. One weak spot exploited by this approach is that fact checking didn’t go all the way to establishing primary sources. News stories up to and including some in America only used other stories as their sources. Thus, the people relying on the transitive property of truth were severely exploited.
Find a useful idiot, someone who would unwittingly promote the fake news story as real. The emphasis in that phrase is evenly distributed. A useful idiot can be anyone who unwittingly (the idiot) takes the pseudo-information at face value and passes it on (the useful bit), often amplifying it. In the case where a news organization propagates an untrue story, it is serving as a useful idiot, even if it attributes the story to another news outlet in another country.
Deny everything when the truth squad shows up. We’ve seen way too much of it lately. When the truth squad tried unraveling the AIDS scare it had to go through many layers of news outlets and reporters to find Russians who denied everything. Or consider “no collusion.” Collusion isn’t a crime in the US but conspiracy is. So in this two word phrase you have a useful idiot spreading a big lie with a kernel of truth in an effort to conceal his hand. It’s brilliant.
Play a long game. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Regardless of costs, keep your eyes on the prize and understand that losses and setbacks are temporary when you play a long game. It’s a very Zen idea. Consider the birther movement. The only way to silence it was to meet its terms by producing President Obama’s birth certificate. The choice was continued low grade carping with erosion of public trust or swallowing a larger amount of humiliation all at once.
In nearly all these commandments you can see how Facebook was taken advantage of during the election cycle thus playing the useful idiot. But also, you see the tactics the company tried to use to deflect attention from itself during investigations—keep in mind the Times’ story headline is “Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis.”
In the process, Facebook has become a useful idiot on steroids, thanks to the Internet and social media’s reach. In the age before the Internet and social media these tactics might have caused some trouble but the disturbance was usually self-contained because it couldn’t spread as well. The truth squad eventually rode in and set things right. Today it’s much harder. For example, in the pre-Internet era, the fake story about the AIDS virus took 6 years to spin up. The story about a child sex ring run by the Clinton campaign and operating out of a pizza restaurant in Washington, DC only took 6 months to bear “fruit” if that’s even the right term for the mass shooting that happened.
What to do?
There is a nascent movement in Congress to develop some form of regulation over Facebook and other social media giants, which is reasonable but not very welcome. It never is. The result of the tech revolution is that we can no longer function very well as a society without information, a trend that is still increasing. This trend makes equal and transparent access to information something that must be spread throughout society.
At the same time, social media and Facebook can no longer be regarded as neutral platforms that foster free speech. They have become publishers bringing eyeballs to advertisers and they have responsibilities that go with this status as well as First Amendment rights. Sen. Mark Warner (D, VA), already has a draft working paper circulating suggesting some components of regulation. Michelle Goldberg Opinion columnist at the Times wrote that,
Among them are amending the Communications Decency Act to open platforms up to defamation and invasion of privacy lawsuits, mandating more transparency in the algorithms that decide what content we see, and giving consumers ownership rights over the data that platforms collect from them.
My two bits
Facebook, Google, Amazon, and many other platforms that use a social media model to capture consumer data and remarket it to advertisers, is now a utility. My definition of a utility is something that started as a disruptive innovation and proved so useful that it has become indispensable to modern life. Modern transportation beginning with the railroads, electricity, telephone, and cable have all trod the same path. At the moment cable, especially as a gateway to the Internet, is the outlier thanks to decisions by the Trump era FCC. By rolling back net neutrality rules set by the Obama administration, the FCC negated the principle of the common carrier that over-arches other utilities. We can and should hope this is a temporary aberration.
But back to data and its collectors and merchants. The consumer and the nation at large have a right to expect that the purveyors of modern life’s essentials will abide by the essence of the Hippocratic Oath and first do no harm. Enacting a common sense set of regulations to make this so should not be a heavy lift.
A century ago President Theodore Roosevelt pushed legislation enacting standards for food and drugs ushering in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A generation later, after Wall Street shenanigans brought on the Great Depression, his cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, brought forth the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). We’re at a similar crossroads today. The path forward might be shrouded in mist but the way backward is completely unacceptable.
Like so many things riling society today, from global warming to immigration, fixing the problem is not the hard part. Getting the various sides to agree there is a problem that needs addressing and negotiating a solution is. Doing nothing is never a solution because letting a situation fester only makes it worse. The recent revelations of Facebook’s failures has demonstrated that putting its house in order is more than it can do internally. Perhaps a reconfigured political landscape in the US and a new year will bring solutions into focus.
I’ve been a user of social media for more than 10 years and I was among the first to write about its potential long before there were social media products. The original research on 6 degrees of separation and the Kevin Bacon game that illustrated the power of social networking fascinated me. I started writing about it and even wrote a paper in about 2002-03 that called for social networking and analytics to become part of the CRM suite. I was a fan of James Surowiecki’s classic, “The Wisdom of Crowds” and thought that was a prescription for settling many tricky research questions. But now approaching 20 years later, I’m dismayed by what social media has become and I find myself calling for its abolition.
Okay, social media isn’t going anywhere. The freedom of speech embedded in western democracies will ensure that even to the point that social media is eroding the very freedom of discourse that supports it. But that only places more responsibility on each of us to ensure that this class of products is used appropriately and not as a force for good.
Revelations about Russian social media use to worsen domestic political arguments among Americans and influence political discourse leaves me shaken. But so does the advertising model and profit motive that drives it. They’re really two sides of the same coin. Social media’s primary product is the user and the products do a great job of gathering crowd data and statistically analyzing it to feed recommendations back to advertisers. It is not wrong to say that we are enabling it to assist force-feeding the consumer culture.
Surely there must be a higher calling for the great technology that we’ve midwifed in the last few decades?
A tsunami of negative press is evolving about social media and the ways Russian intelligence services subverted it to sway America during the last election cycle and even today. I am not using any weasel words to suggest that Russian intelligence purportedly or ostensibly hacked the election. The election scandal walks like a duck and it quacks and with two sources of verification I’m calling it. For back-up the Mueller team issued a 37-page indictment against 13 people and 3 organizations alleging it.
Consider a recent New York Times article, “To Stir Discord in 2016, Russians Turned Most Often to Facebook” by Sheera Frenkel and Katie Benner. It says in part,
In 2014, Russians working for a shadowy firm called the Internet Research Agency started gathering American followers in online groups focused on issues like religion and immigration. Around mid-2015, the Russians began buying digital ads to spread their messages. A year later, they tapped their followers to help organize political rallies across the United States.
The social media instruments of choice? Facebook and its photo-sharing cousin, Instagram.
Facebook and Instagram were mentioned 41 times in the 37 page indictment which charged the Russians with “executing a scheme to subvert the 2016 election and support Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign.”
Now, Facebook and all the other social networks are not charged with any wrong-doing; they are, at least for now, the unwitting dupes of a sophisticated and well-planned effort. Fine, I get it. My dis-ease with Facebook (and Twitter) was summed up well by Jonathan Albright, research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism who is quoted in the above article saying,
“Facebook built incredibly effective tools which let Russia profile citizens here in the U.S. and figure out how to manipulate us,” Mr. Albright said. “Facebook, essentially, gave them everything they needed.”
If that’s true, and it seems hard to dispute, can social networking tools be unquestioningly used for good ever again? Are they, like fire arms, inherently dangerous and only capable of one use?
Call me bad names if you wish but as bad as that is, it is the thought that the big social networks like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others as well as Google and Amazon all capture a raft of information about us for the purpose of force feeding us things that advertisers desperately want to sell.
How effective are their tools and techniques? A separate article, also from the Times, shows a small sample of the online ads that the Russians used during the election that pick at the scabs of our society.
There’s one designed to fan Southern animosity using a Civil War theme,
There are also ads that tell African Americans not to bother voting or that suggest that the white government is against them. Another showing a picture of Hillary Clinton with an X across it and the caption “Hillary Clinton is the co-author of Obama’s anti-police and anti-Constitutional propaganda.” It goes on and on.
You don’t have to like Clinton or Trump to understand that these things erode our democracy because they make it harder to have dialog between opposing parties and without dialog there is no compromise. But by extension, if social media can be successfully used against us in an election, and Facebook admits that such ads reached 150 million Americans during the 2016 election, this stuff can and is being turned against all of us in every day commerce.
They’re still at it,
Another article in the Times (Feb 19, 2018) “After Florida School Shooting, Russian ‘Bot’ Army Pounced” by Sheera Frenkel and Daisuke Wakabayashi offered this chilling summary,
One hour after news broke about the school shooting in Florida last week, Twitter accounts suspected of having links to Russia released hundreds of posts taking up the gun control debate.
The accounts addressed the news with the speed of a cable news network. Some adopted the hashtag #guncontrolnow. Others used #gunreformnow and #Parklandshooting. Earlier on Wednesday, before the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., many of those accounts had been focused on the investigation by the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
The bots owners don’t care which side of any debate they take and seem to prefer running both sides to ensure divisive reactions. Karen North, a social media professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism summarized the situation,
The bots are “going to find any contentious issue, and instead of making it an opportunity for compromise and negotiation, they turn it into an unsolvable issue bubbling with frustration,” said. “It just heightens that frustration and anger.”
Mostly I am disappointed that social networking isn’t really living up to what we envisioned. It’s a realization of social networking that each of us, according to the theory, is no more than 5 touches from any other person on the planet and for most connections it’s fewer.
The practical application of social networking has to do with Dunbar’s Number. Robin Dunbar was a British anthropologist who observed that humans can maintain stable social relationships with about 150 other humans. The number puts a practical limit on all kinds of things that depend on close relationships. For instance a military company is comprised of not more than 150 individuals for reasons of cohesion. The company is the building block of all military units because every member has every other member’s back and they all know it because they have personal relationships.
In the middle ages, monasticism spread for similar reasons. Civilization was saved in Western Europe because whenever a monastery grew above Dunbar’s number, extra members were sent out to establish another miles away. This happened naturally mind you, not because someone had an algorithm but because organizations just got too big for comfort.
Social networking today has blown up Dunbar’s number. While I wouldn’t suggest that I can have anything like a relationship with the few thousand poor souls who follow me, I can at least keep them interested by occasionally flicking off a crumb of my existence for their consumption. But it’s pointless and all indications are that it’s harmful for multiple reasons to the body politic.
So I’ve quit Facebook. Actually, they don’t let you quit, they deactivate your account so that you can come back. I really hope I don’t back slide though. I never got much from facebook and the harm it does to society weighs heavily on me. I’m just one person with an opinion but it would be wonderful if other people did the same.