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Facebook races to wipe out election meddling before 2018 midterms as it admits to failings

Facebook illustration (Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto/Sipa USA)

Facebook is fessing up to what many people have known for a long time: The giant social network can be bad for democracy.

The acknowledgment came as Facebook races against the clock to shut down Russian interference that rocked the 2016 presidential campaign before U.S. voters cast their ballots in hundreds of midterm elections. The November 2018 contests will be the first test of its pledge to protect the American electorate from foreign powers.

“At its best, (social media) allows us to express ourselves and take action. At its worst, it allows people to spread misinformation and corrode democracy,” Samidh Chakrabarti, the company’s product manager for politics and elections products, wrote in a blog post. “I wish I could guarantee that the positives are destined to outweigh the negatives, but I can’t.”

Facebook’s global politics and government outreach director Katie Harbath also acknowledged that the role of social media had radically changed in a separate blog post.

“From the Arab Spring to robust elections around the globe, social media seemed like a positive,” she wrote. “The last U.S. presidential campaign changed that, with foreign interference that Facebook should have been quicker to identify to the rise of ‘fake news’ and echo chambers.”

The admission comes as Facebook wrestles with how to responsibly handle the outsized influence it exerts over people’s social and civic lives. That global power is even more significant abroad, says Andrew Keen, author of How to Fix the Future: Staying Human in the Digital Age.

In Britain, investigations are looking into the Russian effort to interfere in the British referendum last year on leaving the European Union. In Myanmar, the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims is being fueled by misinformation and propaganda spread on Facebook, which is the country’s primary news source. In developing countries, Facebook is also being used to stifle free speech and dissent. A BuzzFeed News report published Sunday revealed how Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has turned to Facebook to target critics of his government.

“Facebook is acknowledging the tremendous — and in some cases harmful — effect it has on democracies and civil society worldwide,” Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in an emailed statement.

In an interview last November, Mark Zuckerberg said he’s committed to stopping foreign efforts to influence U.S. political debate, saying he wants to make sure “we make this as difficult as possible going forward.”

“We are willing to do whatever we need to do to work on it and solve it,” the Facebook CEO told USA TODAY. In November, Facebook said it would hire 10,000 more people to work on safety and security issues in addition to the 10,000 it already employs.

He wasn’t sure Facebook would be able to prevent the problems of the 2016 presidential campaign in the next 10 months before the midterms.

“We have a pretty good track record as a company of — once we set our mind to doing something — we eventually get it done,” Zuckerberg said. But, he conceded, “I don’t know how long it will take to address this.”

Monday’s blog posts are part of the company’s “Hard Questions” series, which touches on a range of tough issues, from policing hate speech to countering terrorism, for Facebook’s more than 2 billion users.

Tech CEOs like Zuckerberg are fond of trumpeting that their companies are changing the world. As the toxic content flowing through Facebook — violent live videos, false news articles, divisive messages from Russian operatives — gets blamed for punching holes in the social fabric, the social network is being forced to acknowledge that it’s not always changing it for the better.

In recent months, Facebook has admitted that passive consumption of Facebook — aimless scrolling through the news feed — can be bad for mental health. Last week Facebook said it would alter the formula that determines what shows up in people’s news feeds to favor status updates from friends and family that spark more meaningful social interactions.

Zuckerberg’s personal challenge for the year, which in the past has run the gamut from learning Mandarin to slaughtering his own meat, is to fix what ails Facebook. He says Facebook has made “too many errors enforcing our policies and preventing misuse of our tools.”

That’s quite a turnaround for Zuckerberg, who after the election of Donald Trump, dismissed the suggestion that Facebook may have played an unwitting part in a foreign influence campaign to sway voters. “To think it influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,” Zuckerberg said in November 2016. He later apologized for the comment.

Facebook disclosed in September that more than 3,000 ads were bought by 470 fake accounts and pages run by the Internet Research Agency, a shadowy organization in St. Petersburg, Russia. Russian operatives targeted Facebook users on hot-button subjects including gun rights, gay rights, religion and presidential candidates Trump and Hillary Clinton.

In November, lawmakers called Facebook before Congress to answer for being a tool of a Russian misinformation campaign in the 2016 election. One of their top complaints: That Facebook waited nearly a year to publicly admit how many Americans were exposed to Russian propaganda during the presidential campaign. During a Senate Intelligence Committee meeting, Facebook admitted that the Kremlin-linked influence campaign reached 146 million Americans on Facebook and Instagram, significantly more people than it originally disclosed.

With the midterm elections looming, Chakrabarti says Facebook is “making up for lost time” by disclosing more about political ads that run on the giant social network.

Facebook is making it possible to visit an advertiser’s page on Facebook and see the ads they are running. Advertisers running election ads will have to verify their identities so that users know who paid for them. And Facebook is building an archive of election ads that can be searched. The steps bring Facebook closer to what’s required of other media such as television and newspapers.

Recent evidence suggests that Russian operatives are continuing efforts to interfere in U.S. political debate with #ReleaseTheMemo. The hashtag refers to a classified congressional report about President Donald Trump’s allegations that he was wiretapped by the Obama administration. It’s being promoted by Twitter accounts linked to Russian-sponsored influence and disinformation campaigns, according to Hamilton 68, a project with the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund that tracks Russian propaganda.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) says he’s pleased Facebook is taking steps but warns that stopping election interference “is going to require a real determined effort by the company to mitigate the way people are misusing the platform.”

“There is a lot of work to do,” he said. “The bad actors, Russians among them, are going to be hiding their tracks better so it’s going to require a real deliberate effort to sleuth them out.”

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© 2018 USA Today

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.