Media Moves

Coverage: Facebook is in damage control over Russia

February 20, 2018

Posted by Chris Roush

facebookFacebook is in the damage-control business, as it tries to get out from under the cloud of suspicion related to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.

Kevin Roose of The New York Times had the news:

Rob Goldman, Facebook’s vice president of advertising, posted a series of messages on Twitter that were meant to clear up misconceptions about Facebook’s role in the election. Instead, he plunged the company deeper into controversy.

“Most of the coverage of Russian meddling involves their attempt to effect the outcome of the 2016 US election,” Mr. Goldman tweeted. “I have seen all of the Russian ads and I can say very definitively that swaying the election was *NOT* the main goal.”

He continued: “The majority of the Russian ad spend happened AFTER the election. We shared that fact, but very few outlets have covered it because it doesn’t align with the main media narrative of Tump [sic] and the election.”

Mr. Goldman was tweeting only for himself, but his comments, which drew praise from other Facebook executives on Twitter, were an unusually candid statement that flouted Facebook’s well-sculpted messaging strategy, which has generally been to stay as far away from partisan debates as possible. The tweets arrived soon after the blockbuster indictment of Russian nationals by the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, and they were noticed by right-wing partisans, who saw them as supporting evidence for Mr. Trump’s “no collusion” claims. Soon, Mr. Trump himself had retweeted them approvingly.

Max de Haldevang of Quartz writes that the ad campaign is not the whole issue for the company:

It makes sense for Goldman to focus on ads. That’s his job at Facebook and it’s also one of the areas where the company is most vulnerable—it took money from an allegedly Kremlin-linked disinformation campaign that relied on identity theft. However, special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians shows that buying ads was a just a component of the troll farm’s efforts, which reached a “significant” number of Americans through more direct use of Mark Zuckerberg’s social networking platform.

The indictment details how the trolls made reconnaissance trips to the US to gather information and target their efforts. They set up Facebook groups aiming to stoke divisions and radicalize Americans, pushing bogus causes like “United Muslims of America,” “Blacktivist,” and “Army of Jesus.” They created fake accounts that aimed to become “leaders of public opinion in the US,” which would then push the same divisive agenda. They organized rallies over false issues and persuaded real Americans to go to them. They encouraged minorities not to vote and pushed allegations of voter fraud.

All this began in 2014 and Facebook, alongside Twitter, Instagram (which it owns), and YouTube, was a crucial tool in the campaign—in fact, according to the New York Times (paywall), the indictment mentions Facebook and Instagram a combined 41 times, compared to just 9 for Twitter. It reached 126 million people (paywall) through Facebook alone. So, to cite the increased ad spend after the election, with the implicit suggestion that the campaign didn’t affect the vote, is misleading.

Samuel Scott of The Drum called Facebook a tool of Russian leader Vladimir Putin:

In my opinion, Friday’s indictments will be taught in the future as the single largest PR disaster in business history. Facebook has one chance to survive: tell the truth, tell the complete truth, release all of the Russian advertisements and related data, and do it quickly.

But there is more that the company should do.

First, Facebook should be held to the same political advertising standards as traditional media in the US — as well as in every other country that has similar regulations. If the company were to adopt the rules voluntarily, it would be the beginning of a mea culpa and a move in good faith. Facebook announced in October that it will require full transparency, but it will be the follow-through and not the statement that matters. We will see. For its part, Google says it ‘strongly supports’ full disclosure in political ads.

Second, Facebook — as well as Amazon, Google, and Taboola — should cut off the far-right and fake news publication Breitbart News.

Third, Facebook should drop the absurd pretense that COO Sheryl Sandberg has been dutifully peddling: that the platform is not a media company. As Jeff John Roberts succinctly pointed out in Fortune, Facebook has an interest in not being deemed as a media company and not dealing with the regulatory responsibilities and legal liabilities that would follow.

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