Since its creation 14 years ago in a Harvard dorm room, Facebook has become a social media platform of unrivaled global reach. With 2.2 billion users monthly, a ripple of information that hits the Facebook "community" can become a tsunami.
This is, in essence, what happened in 2016, when hackers with Russian government connections used Facebook to insert false news stories and conspiracy theories into America's presidential race, in what U.S. intelligence has said was a sophisticated effort to influence the election outcome. After some false starts, Facebook and its founder, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, have publicly said all the right words about taking responsibility for this lapse and addressing it.
But a recent New York Times report reveals that, behind the scenes, the company's overriding priority has been public relations and damage control — an effort that has employed some of the same kinds of misinformation and character assassination the Russians used. That alone should put Facebook squarely in line for congressional review as part of the ongoing Russia probe.
We may never know whether Russian hacking factored significantly in President Donald Trump's election, but it's been well established that was their goal. When it came to light after the election, Zuckerberg's first public reaction was that the allegation was "crazy." Later — acting more like the head of a phone company than of the world's largest social-media network — he opined that Facebook just provides a communications platform and isn't responsible for how people use it.
Testifying before Congress in April, Zuckerberg finally seemed to get it right, acknowledging the seriousness of the Russian hacking and other problems and Facebook's responsibility to address them. But according to the Times' report, Facebook security knew as early as spring 2016 that there was a coordinated Russian hacking campaign underway, yet it failed to tell the public or even Facebook's own board of directors for more than a year.
Later, facing criticism about that failure, Facebook quietly launched a campaign to try to shift blame to other technology companies such as Google and promote criticism about commentators who have criticized Facebook.
In one shocking example, Facebook contracted with Definers Public Affairs, a Republican-connected firm known for scorched-earth opposition research. The firm spread propaganda about liberal megadonor George Soros, claiming he was behind an anti-Facebook campaign. Anyone familiar with the world of hard-right smear tactics knows that Soros, a Jewish billionaire, is often invoked as chief boogeyman by those exploiting the biases of anti-Semitic activists.
Zuckerberg, who is also Jewish, said last week he didn't even know his company was working with Definers until he read the Times story. If true, it indicates that no one, not even its own leader, has the Facebook behemoth under control. For the sake of future U.S. elections, Congress needs to ensure that changes.
REPRINTED FROM THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH