Facebook, Elections and "Malicious Actors"

Came across a CBS News report from April about a Facebook internal investigation which confirmed that "malicious actors" used its platform to manipulate voters and throw the 2016 election. While not coming out and saying it straight out, CBS says the report heavily implies that Russia was involved and that the "malicious actors" helped throw the election in favor of Donald Trump.

Without saying the words "Russia," "Hillary Clinton," or "Donald Trump," Facebook acknowledged Thursday for the first time what others have been saying for months.

In a paper released by its security division, the company said "malicious actors" used the platform during the 2016 presidential election as part of a campaign "with the intent of harming the reputation of specific political targets."

"Facebook is not in a position to make definitive attribution to the actors sponsoring this activity....however our data does not contradict the attribution provided by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence in the report dated January 6, 2017," the report's authors wrote, referring to the U.S. Intelligence Community's assessment that Russia waged an information campaign with the goal of harming Clinton and helping Trump.

Malicious actors? Manipulation? Political targets?

Uhm? I seem to recall that Facebook is a platform built for for-profit behavioral profiling, manipulation and influence. That's how it generates money: nearly $30 billion last year.

As for political manipulation? Remember the praise heaped on Obama's 2008 "Facebook Election"? Now, every election since then has been a Facebook election.

It's not surprising that political campaigns took an early and special liking to the targeted access and influence Facebook offered. Instead of blanketing airwaves with a single political ad, they could show people ads that appealed specifically to the issues they held dear, and have that message spread through a targeted person's larger social network through reposting and sharing. Facebook even proved that it could influence people's emotional state in connection to a certain topic or event — what it calls "emotional contagion," the ability to virally influence people’s emotions and ideas just through the content of status updates: a negative post by a user suppresses positive posts by their friends, while a positive post suppresses negative posts. “When a Facebook user posts, the words they choose influence the words chosen later by their friends,” explained the company’s lead scientist on this study.

On a very basic level, this gives Facebook real power over people's ideas and actions during an election — just by imperceptibly modulating a person's feed algorithm to show more posts from friends who are, say, supporters of particular politician candidate or a specific political idea or event. As far as I know there is no law preventing Facebook from doing just that: influencing the feed based on political aims — whether done for internal corporate objectives, payments from political groups or the personal preferences of Mark Zuckerberg.

Even with that aside, the company runs a political division specifically geared to help its customers target and influence voters. The company even allows political campaigns to upload their own lists of potential voters and supporters directly into Facebook’s data system, and then use those people’s social networks to extrapolate other people who might be supportive of the candidate — and then target them with ads. “There’s a level of precision that doesn’t exist in any other medium,” Crystal Patterson, a Facebook employee who works with government and politics customers, told the New York Times. “It’s getting the right message to the right people at the right time.” The paper reported that Facebook stood to make $1 billion in political advertising — aka influence operations. Yes, a billion dollars.

The fact is that Facebook is the "malicious actor" here — a vital public communications system that runs on profiling and manipulation for private profit without any regulations or democratic oversight from the society in which it operates. But, hey, let's blame the Russians.

—Yasha Levine

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