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.