Facebook’s Zuckerberg – election interference, Fake News and the security “arms race”

SUMMARY:

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faces tough questions from Congress next week. He’s going to have to do better than this…

Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is due to be grilled by the U.S. Congress next week – he’s declined a request to do the same in the House of Commons – but yesterday he had a dry run when he fielded media questions on the current crisis surrounding his firm.

The decision to speak out came on the day that Facebook admitted that as many as 87 million users could have been affected by the Cambridge Analytica scandal. That’s higher than the 50 million users figure that has been doing the rounds and a lot higher than the “no more than 30 million” that Cambridge Analytica pitched on social media as the crisis evolved.

Data was collected through an app called thisisyourdigitallife, built by Aleksandr Kogan of Cambridge University, via his company Global Science Research in collaboration with Cambridge Analytica.

It’s clear that there’s still a lack of clarity here as Zuckerberg admitted:

What we announced with the 87 million is the maximum number of people we could calculate could have been accessed. We don’t actually know how many people’s information Kogan actually got. We don’t know what he sold to Cambridge Analytica, and we don’t know today what they have in their system. What we have said and what they’ve agreed to do, is a full forensic audit of their system, so we can get those answers.

But for now, the UK Government’s own investigations are leading the way here:

The UK Government, and the ICO (Information Commissioner’s Office), are doing a government investigation and that takes precedence. So, we’ve stood down temporarily, to let the ICO do their investigation and their audit, and once that’s done, we’ll resume ours, so we can get answers to the questions…and ultimately to make sure that none of the data persists or is being used improperly.

Election interference

A major topic of discussion was of course how far, if at all, Facebook had contributed to electoral interference in the result of the U.S. Presidential Election in 2016, among others.

Yesterday Facebook announced that it has shut down hundreds of accounts owned by a Russian ‘troll factory’, the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency (IRA), an action that has led to Russian authorities demanding an explanation from the White House. Zuckerberg said:

Identifying this network of fake accounts the IRA has been using so we can work to remove them from Facebook entirely. This was the first action we’ve taken against the IRA in Russia itself, and it included identifying and taking down Russian news organization that we determined were controlled and operated by the IRA.

He added:

Since we became aware of this activity, their activity after the 2016 US elections, we’ve been working to root out the IRA and protect the integrity of elections around the world. And since then there have been a number of important elections that we’ve focused on. A few months after the 2016 elections there was the French presidential election, and leading up to that we deployed some new AI tools that took down more than 30,000 fake accounts.

After that there was the German election, where we developed a new playbook for working with the local election commission to share information on the threats we were each seeing. And in the US Senate Alabama special election last year, we successfully deployed some new AI tools that removed Macedonian trolls who were trying to spread misinformation during the election.

This is going to be an ongoing battle, he warned, not something that can be cleared up overnight:

As long as there are people employed in Russia who have the job of trying to find ways to exploit these systems, this is going to be a never-ending battle. You never fully solve security — it’s an arms race. In retrospect, we were behind, and we didn’t invest enough in it up front. We had thousands of people working on security, but nowhere near the 20,000 that we’re going to have by the end of this year. So I am confident we are making progress against these adversaries. But they were very sophisticated, and it would be a mistake to assume that you can ever fully solve a problem like this, or think that they are going to give up and stop doing what they are doing.

This sort of election interference needs to be dealt with as a security matter, rather than treated as an extension of spamming, he explained:

Instead of treating it like spammers, you treat it as a security issue. In order to solve that, what we need to do is identify these bad actors. It’s actually less about content, because some of the stuff would’ve been legitimate speech had someone who is not a ‘bad actor’ been doing it. But people are setting up these large networks of fake accounts, like the IRA had done, and what we need to do is just track that really carefully in order to be able to remove it from Facebook entirely. What we’re seeing is the IRA and organizations like that, are morphing — whether they’re media organizations or sanctioned news organizations in Russia… When we investigate this closely over time, we’re able to prove [they] are completely owned, controlled and operated by the IRA. We take that down and treat it as a security issue.

Such activity is going to be a top priority to take this on this year, he added:

2018 is going to be an important year for protecting election integrity around the world. There’s the Mexican presidential election, there are big Presidential elections in India and Brazil, as well as Pakistan and Hungary and a number of other countries, and the US midterms, of course, too.

Crazy

What also emerged from the Zuckerberg briefing was that he does now believe in the concept of Fake News, something that he dismissed after the Trump election back in 2016:

I think at this point that I clearly made a mistake by just dismissing Fake News as “crazy”…People will analyze the actual impact of this for a long time to come, but what I think was clear at this point is that it was too flippant. I should have never referred to it as crazy.

In terms of learnings, he added, the understanding of corporate responsibility needs to be expanded:

It’s not enough to just give people a voice, we have to make sure that people are not using that voice to hurt people or spread disinformation. And it’s not enough to give people tools to sign into apps, we have to ensure that all of those developers protect people’s information too. It’s not enough to have rules requiring they protect information, it’s not enough to believe them when they tell us they’re protecting information — we actually have to ensure that everyone in our ecosystem protects people’s information.

As for Zuckerberg himself, the question of his suitability to carry on as CEO has been the elephant in the room for weeks. It still is. He insisted:

I think life is about learning from the mistakes and figuring out what you need to do to move forward. A lot of times people ask, “What are the mistakes you made early on, starting the company, or what would you try to do differently?” The reality of a lot of this is that when you are building something like Facebook that is unprecedented in the world, there are going to be things that you mess up. And if we had gotten this right, we would have messed something else up.

I don’t think anyone is going to be perfect, but I think what people should hold us accountable for is learning from the mistakes and continually doing better and continuing to evolve what our view of our responsibility is — and, at the end of the day, whether we’re building things that people like and that make their lives better. I think it’s important to not lose sight of that through all of this. I’m the first to admit that we didn’t take a broad enough view of what our responsibilities were.

So should he stay at the helm? He thinks so:

At the end of the day, this is my responsibility…I started this place. I run it. And I am responsible for what happens here… I still think that I’m going to do the best job to help run it going forward.

My take

My two main takeaways? Firstly, on Zuckerberg’s future – that’s a decision that others are ultimately going to make. Secondly, he’s going to have to a lot better than this next week in front of Congress.

Image credit - Facebook