- Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, says people were worried about hacking and not election interference before 2016.
- But that's not true. Hillary Clinton and others were warning about Russia's disinformation campaign as far back as 2011.
- Facebook needs to stop talking about what it didn't do for years and start talking about what it will do from today.
In a live interview with the news website Axios on Thursday, Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, lamented that the company hadn't found out about Russia's use of the platform to spread disinformation and propaganda before the 2016 US elections.
"We were looking at this certainly not as early as we would have liked to, because we wish we had found it before it ever happened," Sandberg said.
"If you think about 2015, 2016," she later added, "the threats most people were worried about were hacking, taking down accounts, getting into your email account and sharing all of it."
Perhaps hacking is what users were worried about, but in national security and press circles, the idea of a Russian information war against the US had been gaining steam since 2011. TV channels like Russia Today and websites like Sputnik have long been unapologetic about towing the Kremlin line — about the fact that they are pushing Russian President Vladimir Putin's will.
By 2015, Russian propaganda was all over Facebook in forms both formal and informal, and the platform had already helped Russia wreak havoc around the world, especially in Ukraine.
"There are those who claim the warnings are just the work of alarmist neo-conservatives," Columbia professor Ann Cooper and I said in The Washington Post in 2015. "They're not. The spread of ideas matters. If it didn't, Russia wouldn't be in the idea-spreading business."
Connecting the dots that Russia may have a plan for the US presidential election would require one to pay attention. So let's say Facebook wasn't. That's gross negligence. To ignore that the people purchasing space on Facebook were pushing lies and distortions, on the other hand, is beyond that — it's willful ignorance and a stunning display of greed.
They'll tell you
I know that we're in an information war with Russia because I asked.
Back in 2015, as an adjunct professor at Columbia's journalism school, I hosted staffers from RT, and they were very frank about their mission. They informed us that from 2008, when the US was critical of Russia's annexation of a piece of Georgia, their aim was to show the world that the US was a flawed nation that's inferior to Russia.
Take a quick look at the topics RT consistently used to prove its anti-American point and you might as well be at a buffet serving Facebook's garbage media diet from the election. Going back as far as 2011, RT was playing on US racial tensions and shrilly accusing Hillary Clinton of warmongering and criminality.
I say 2011 because that's when Clinton, then secretary of state, testified before Congress about Russia's information war against the US. The Kremlin knew she was watching, and so the Kremlin went to war against her. No one who paid attention to this interaction was shocked that Putin favored Donald Trump in 2016.
But again, you had to be paying attention. Or you had to keep paying attention. After Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Congress again addressed the matter of Russian propaganda in testimony. The former RT journalist Liz Wahl explained how the Kremlin manipulated social media, and it might sound familiar to anyone in the US now.
From Wahl's testimony (emphasis ours):
"Russian media provides a home for a spectrum of political beliefs as long as they are skeptical of the political establishment. While some of the theories peddled are outright absurd, there are a surprising amount of people prone to being manipulated that think it’s hip to believe in any alternative theory, feeling proud of perceiving themselves to be enlightened and even prouder when they amass sizable social media followers that hang on every misguided and outright false theory that is propagated. Russia is aware of this population of paranoid skeptics and plays them like a fiddle."
Sound familiar? Maybe it reminds you of a few arguments you had with Facebook-addicted family members over the holidays in 2016.
Another witness, Peter Pomeratsev, a journalist who spent years working in Russian television, was even more explicit mentioning Facebook by name.
"The Kremlin... funds 'troll farms,' regime-funded companies which hire people to spread messages on social media, using Facebook, Twitter, newspaper comment sections and many other spaces. Through these networks, Russia propagates conspiracy theories, disinformation and fake news.... Their aim was [is] not so much to persuade a potential viewer of any one version, but to trash the information space with so much disinformation so that a conversation based on actual facts would become impossible."
Pomeratsev wrote a book about his time working in Russia called "Nothing is Real and Everything is Possible" — about how Russia became a fact-less nation. America now knows what he was talking about, but it's something Facebook should've known before we had to find out.
No one wants to hear it, Sheryl
Facebook says it didn't have an inkling of what was going on before the election, but we know that it knew the Kremlin's agents were bullying Ukrainian activists, at the very least. Were Sandberg and Zuckerberg simply so naive they didn't think that Putin would turn his eye on his most fearsome enemy?
Or were they just so greedy they didn't care?
In the Axios interview, most of Sandberg's comments were backward-looking and so, in a word, worthless. The 2018 elections are coming, and the far right has not tried to disguise its affinity for the Kremlin line. Steve Bannon's Breitbart News is known for spreading its share of fact-melting misinformation that sounds as if it's straight from the RT newsroom.
And — for so-called anti-globalists — Bannon has shown a willingness to collaborate with other international Putin-philes like the UK's Nigel Farage and Hungary's far right. Make no mistake: What they all have in common is not only "nationalism" but also a belief in Putin's political system — fascism.
Opposing this and stamping it out shouldn't be a question for Facebook. This isn't a gray area. This an American value. We are not fascists. Millions of people around the world died not too long ago to reaffirm that. What Facebook (and Twitter and Google) has done — ignoring the spread of fascism, lies, and anti-American propaganda in the digital space — is a disgusting display of moral relativism and intellectual laziness that Silicon Valley has revealed it can wear as easily as a pair of Tevas and some cargo shorts.
We don't want to hear about what Facebook missed. We want to hear that Facebook will not allow the agents of a fascist movement to continue to manipulate it as a distribution platform. We want to hear how attempts by these agents to engage the platform will be vetted and reported to the US government.
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