Wednesday, 17 Jul 2024

Opinion | How to Find Out What Facebook Knew

“Facebook cannot be trusted to regulate itself,” tweeted Rhode Island Representative David Cicilline on Wednesday night.

Mr. Cicilline, who is likely to chair the House of Representative’s Judiciary subcommittee that focuses on antitrust law, was responding to a Times investigation, one that painted a damning picture of how Facebook had handled the discovery of Russian misinformation campaigns on its platform. Based on interviews with more than 50 people, the investigation depicted Facebook’s top executives — including Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg — ignoring and downplaying the extent of Russian skulduggery, even going as far as to stall the publication of internal findings.

On Thursday, Facebook pushed back in a blog post that denied slow-rolling its response to foreign election interference.

But familiar questions remain unanswered: How much did Facebook know, and when?

The answers to those questions grow in size and seriousness as the breadth of the effort to befoul the democratic process becomes more and more apparent. In February, the special counsel Robert Mueller brought an indictment against an infamous Russian troll farm, the Internet Research Agency. In July, Mr. Mueller secured an indictment against 12 Russian intelligence officers for their roles in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s computers and those of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The same officers used both Facebook and Twitter to promote the stolen documents and emails.

In early 2016, people inside Facebook had spotted suspicious Russian activity, which was reported to the F.B.I. But in the days after the 2016 election, Mr. Zuckerberg publicly dismissed the notion that misinformation on Facebook had influenced the election, calling it “a pretty crazy idea.”

Even before the Mueller indictments exposed the extent of a coordinated Russian misinformation campaign, suspicions ran high. Many people had questions; few people were in the position to demand answers. Mr. Zuckerberg was one of those few, and for some reason he did not.

Facebook could have approached its civic duty head-on, but instead busied itself with damage control. Joel Kaplan, the company’s vice president for global public policy, objected to the public dissemination of internal findings on the grounds that it would offend conservatives. The company also chose to strengthen its ties with Definers Public Affairs, a consulting firm founded by Republican political operatives, which then sought to discredit anti-Facebook activists by linking them to George Soros, a wealthy liberal donor who is often the subject of conspiracy theories. Facebook said it cut ties with Definers on Wednesday night.

Russian influence operations and viral false reports should have been anticipated byproducts of Facebook’s business model, which is based on selling advertising on the back of user engagement. In short, Facebook capitalizes on personal information to influence the behavior of its users, and then sells that influence to advertisers for a profit. It is an ecosystem ripe for manipulation.

Facebook is not the only tech company that demands regulatory scrutiny. But Facebook has, perhaps uniquely, demonstrated a staggering lack of corporate responsibility and civic duty in the wake of this crisis.

Real accountability is not forthcoming. Even in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, there was no shake-up in the upper echelons of the company — the most high-profile departure was that of Alex Stamos, the chief security officer who — according to The Times — independently chose to investigate Russian operations on the platform, and clashed with top brass as a result. As for Mr. Zuckerberg, he is unlikely to be ousted as CEO — he is both the majority shareholder and the chairman of the board. As a result, meaningful corporate oversight does not exist at the company.

Meaningful oversight of the tech industry from the executive branch is equally absent.

That’s why the incoming House, newly in Democratic hands, should make serious oversight a priority. If the House is looking to set the agenda for the next two years, Facebook should be near the top. What ambiguities remain about what Facebook knew and when are prime subjects for hearings.

As Representative Cicilline’s tweet suggests, a sense of urgency is growing around the idea Facebook should be regulated, but there’s no consensus on exactly how. The answers can only come if the right questions are asked. Congressional hearings are an obvious start. We can only hope the House doesn’t pull any punches.

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