How autocratic governments use Facebook against their own citizens
New reports about Libya and the Philippines highlight a different kind of influence campaign
Casey NewtonSep 5, 2018, 6:00am EDT
Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge
Last month, Facebook discovered evidence of a coordinated influence campaign on its platform led by groups in Iran. On Tuesday, a pair of investigations cast new light on other ways that autocratic governments are using Facebook to terrible ends: creating brigades of influencers and paid troll armies to suppress dissent and deny the reality of human-rights atrocities within their own countries.
In The New York Times, Declan Walsh and Suliman Ali Zway examine how the “keyboard warriors” of Libya use Facebook to hunt and kill their enemies. “Armed groups use Facebook to find opponents and critics, some of whom have later been detained, killed or forced into exile, according to human rights groups and Libyan activists,” they write. “Swaggering commanders boast of their battlefield exploits and fancy vacations, or rally supporters by sowing division and ethnic hatred. Forged documents circulate widely, often with the goal of undermining Libya’s few surviving national institutions, notably its Central Bank.”
Of course, it’s easier to hunt and kill your enemies when you can buy your weapons using the same platform you’re hunting them on:
The New York Times found evidence of military-grade weapons being openly traded, despite the company’s policies forbidding such commerce. Human traffickers advertise their success in helping illegal migrants reach Europe by sea, and use their pages to drum up more business. Practically every armed group in Libya, and even some of their detention centers, have their own Facebook page. […]
“The most dangerous, dirty war is now being waged on social media and some other media platforms,” Mahmud Shammam, a former information minister, said last week as fighting ripped through the Tripoli suburbs. “Lying, falsifying, misleading and mixing facts. Electronic armies are owned by everyone, and used by everyone without exception. It is the most deadly war.”
Meanwhile in the Philippines, BuzzFeed’s Davey Alba finds that the autocrat Rodrigo Duterte has found Facebook highly effective for harassing critics and contributing to a general sense of unreality. That’s been helpful for covering up the country’s estimated 12,000 extrajudicial state-sponsored killings since Duterte took office.
The broad outlines of the story of Duterte and Facebook were laid out nine months ago in a beautifully reported piece by Lauren Etter in Bloomberg. Alba’s story advances it by focusing on how three influential Duterte fans, one of whom became a paid government spokeswoman, coordinate to spread misinformation and targeted harassment against the strongman’s political opponents:
Nieto does publish news as well, both to his blog and directly on Facebook, where he posts “10 to 20 times a day,” he told BuzzFeed News. That news is typically unverified; sometimes it’s demonstrably inaccurate. Beyond the conspiracies noted above, Nieto has misquoted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a way that made it appear Trudeau supported a massive garbage dump in the Philippines. He’s promoted a falsified 1979 psychiatric report on the former Philippine president Noynoy Aquino, which claimed that the reason Aquino wanted to become president was “to heap a measure of revenge” on those who imprisoned his father, Benigno Aquino Jr., the rival of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and a national hero who was assassinated in 1983. Nieto has also tried to artificially deflate the number of Filipinos murdered in Duterte’s bloody war on drugs. He has used Facebook Live footage of child autopsies in a crusade to blame a health crisis on the former administration.
Nieto speaks to an audience of more than 2 million Facebook followers. Each of his posts gets thousands of likes and shares, consistently more than the political commentators he’d be most comparable to in the US. He touts all this as evidence that everything is just fine in the Philippines. “They’re saying that freedom of speech is under threat. No,” he said. “It’s never been more democratic.”
The focus at tomorrow’s hearings in Congress — more on those below — will be on how foreign countries can use tech platforms to create discord here in America. But reading these investigations, I’m left wondering what authority will ask companies about the ways in which countries use their platforms against their own citizens.
The tech platforms return to Congress on Wednesday for two hearings. In the morning, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence will talk to Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, and an empty chair meant to shame Alphabet for not sending CEO Larry Page. And in the afternoon, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will yell Jack Dorsey for an extended period of time.
A couple good previews are below, along with links to speakers’ testimony, all of which will sound familiar to anyone who reads this newsletter. The only interesting bit was this, from Dorsey’s testimony:
In preparation for this hearing and to better inform the members of the Committee, our data scientists analyzed Tweets sent by all members of the House and Senate that have Twitter accounts for a 30 day period spanning July 23, 2018 until August 13, 2018. We learned that, during that period, Democratic members sent 10,272 Tweets and Republican members sent 7,981. Democrats on average have more followers per account and have more active followers. As a result, Democratic members in the aggregate receive more impressions or views than Republicans.
Despite this greater number of impressions, after controlling for various factors such as the number of Tweets and the number of followers, and normalizing the followers’ activity, we observed that there is no statistically significant difference between the number of times a Tweet by a Democrat is viewed versus a Tweet by a Republican. In the aggregate, controlling for the same number of followers, a single Tweet by a Republican will be viewed as many times as a single Tweet by a Democrat, even after all filtering and algorithms have been applied by Twitter. Our quality filtering and ranking algorithm does not result in Tweets by Democrats or Tweets by Republicans being viewed any differently. Their performance is the same because the Twitter platform itself does not take sides.
Betsy Morris, Deepa Seetharaman and Robert McMillan look at how Facebook’s rough couple of years has chipped away at Sheryl Sandberg’s image as the consummate problem solver. It’s a good look at how her role has changed as she prepares to go before Congress:
Urged by his board to be more proactive, Mr. Zuckerberg quietly asked her to lead the company’s efforts to identify and prevent future blowups on the platform. The new job, insiders say, is at least as challenging as the company’s transition to mobile several years ago, which was late and rocky. Ms. Sandberg’s role is likely to be complex, expensive and thankless, people close to the company say, with any failures very public.
In his walk-up to tomorrow’s hearings, Peter Kafka worries for Jack Dorsey:
The best-case scenario for Dorsey is a very long day on Capitol Hill. But there are lots of ways for this to go badly for him. Part of this is a matter of seasoning and temperament: Dorsey does some public appearances, but he isn’t a professional talker. And when he does talk, he tends to approach questions with what can scan as a … detached affect. The bigger problem: While Dorsey and Twitter are well-versed in handling questions about election interference, the bias story is a new one, and Dorsey is going to spend an entire afternoon, by himself, handling it, at a session dedicated to “Twitter: Transparency and Accountability.”
Issie Lapowsky talks to the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He’s mad Google isn’t sending Larry Page to tomorrow’s hearings:
I was going to ask them why Google is building a search engine for China to allow Chinese censorship. Maybe they don’t want to answer some of those questions. But if Google thinks we’re just going to go away, they’re sadly mistaken. I’ve had a great working relationship with Google over the years, but I’ve been generally surprised that they might not want to be part of the conversation about how we fix this and get solutions.
Here’s Google’s testimony.
Here’s Facebook’s testimony.
Here’s Dorsey’s testimony.
Georgia Wells and Kirsten Grind made waves over the weekend with a story that said Jack Dorsey personally weighs in on decisions like whether to ban Alex Jones. Twitter denied Dorsey does this, which was somehow even stranger. Like, the CEO just threw his hands up and said “y’all figure it out”? C’mon. Dorsey was more equivocal when Politico asked him about this on Tuesday: “I ask questions. I don’t think I’ve ever overruled anything,” he said.
Jon Kyl, who is currently leading the “investigation” into complaints of conservative bias at Facebook, will have John McCain’s old Senate seat until 2020.
Ajit Pai wrote a bad-faith Medium post calling on tech platforms to be more “transparent” about their decisions, which is really just a way of pressuring them to promote conservative voices, writes my colleague Jake Kastrenakes:
But Pai comes at it from the same approach as President Trump, cherry-picking examples to make it seem like these are liberal companies out to silence conservative voices, rather than platforms keeping their sites safe. One example he pulls out is YouTube demonetizing videos from PragerU, a nonprofit (which is not a university) that the Southern Poverty Law Center described as offering “dog whistles to the extreme right.” Among the videos pulled were several with Islamophobic titles like “Is Islam a Religion of Peace?”
Kevin Roose looks at how Facebook Groups, lately positioned as a potential solution to some of the company’s problems, can enable more bad behavior than public posts:
When it comes to more private forms of communication through the company’s services — like Facebook groups, or the messaging apps WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger — the social network’s progress is less clear. Some experts worry that Facebook’s public cleanup may be pushing more toxic content into these private channels, where it is harder to monitor and moderate.
Misinformation is not against Facebook’s policies unless it leads to violence. But many of the private groups reviewed by The New York Times contained content and behavior that appeared to violate other Facebook rules, such as rules against targeted harassment and hate speech. In one large QAnon group, members planned a coordinated harassment campaign, known as Operation Mayflower, against public figures such as the actor Michael Ian Black, the late-night host Stephen Colbert and the CNN journalist Jim Acosta. In the Infowars group, posts about Muslims and immigrants have drawn threatening comments, including calls to deport, castrate and kill people.
“Google says it’s securing its ad platform against foreign meddlers, but for just $35 researchers posing as Russian trolls were able to run political ads without any hurdles,” Charlie Warzel reports.
J. Lester Feder and Pascal Anselmi examine the role that Facebook has played in recent racial violence in Germany:
One of the engines for pumping out false information about the Chemnitz killing was the Facebook page of a group called Pro-Chemnitz, which has three seats on the local city council and organized the protest on Monday that ended in mob violence. In calling for the protest, it claimed the victim in Sunday’s stabbing was “a brave helper who lost his life trying to protect a woman.” The post is still online.
The group knows just how important Facebook is to its political fortunes. “We are completely social-media based,” said Benjamin Jahn Zschocke, the group’s spokesperson. “If our Facebook page were to be deleted, we would disappear completely.”
Jo Ling Kent and Michael Cappetta talk to Samidh Chakrabarti, who helps lead the effort in fighting against influence campaigns, and learn that Facebook is building a physical “war room” to monitor threats in real time. (There’s a picture of the current “war room,” and it looks like a standard Facebook conference room.) Elsewhere, CNN talks to Facebook’s “top troll hunter,” Nathaniel Gleicher, who makes similar noises.
With less than two months to go, Chakrabarti said Facebook is “much more effective than we used to be” and the entire company is “laser focused on getting it right.” He also revealed new details on Facebook’s plans to build a physical “war room” to coordinate a real-time response to nefarious activity during the midterms.
India may follow the European Union in passing strict new laws against tech platforms, Vindu Goel reports:
The proposals include European-style limits on what big internet companies can do with users’ personal data, a requirement that tech firms store certain sensitive data about Indians only within the country, and restrictions on the ability of foreign-owned e-commerce companies to undercut local businesses on price.
The policy changes unfolding in India would be the latest to crimp the power — and profits — of American tech companies, and they may well contribute to the fracturing of the global internet.
Natasha Singer has a helpful explainer on how to use the tech giants’ new political ads databases:
None of the archives is currently designed to search for phrases. That means, for instance, if you search the Facebook archive for “don’t go to vote” — a phrase that a Kremlin-linked group employed in a Facebook ad discouraging users from going to the polls — you’ll end up with thousands of resulting ads that used the word “vote.”
On Facebook, you’ll need to search by the name of the candidate or political issue you’re looking for. On Google, search under the candidate’s or advertiser’s name. On Twitter, look for the name of the account the ad ran under. Once you get results, you can click an individual ad to learn more.
Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay report that there are people out there who actually enjoy using LinkedIn. They work for Chinese espionage agencies:
LinkedIn “is a very good site,” Evanina said. “But it makes for a great venue for foreign adversaries to target not only individuals in the government, formers, former CIA folks, but academics, scientists, engineers, anything they want. It’s the ultimate playground for collection.”
It’s only the 94th most important Facebook story of the day, but this is still an interesting scoop from checks notes Casey Newton:
Instagram is working on a new standalone app dedicated to shopping, The Verge has learned. The app — which may be called IG Shopping — will let users browse collections of goods from merchants that they follow and purchase them directly within the app, according to two people familiar with the matter. Instagram declined to comment.
It could not be learned when the app might launch. Its development is still ongoing, and it could be canceled before it is released. But sources familiar with its development say Instagram believes it is well positioned to make a major expansion into e-commerce.
Deplatforming works, Jack Nicas reports:
In the three weeks before the Aug. 6 bans, Infowars had a daily average of nearly 1.4 million visits to its website and views of videos posted by its main YouTube and Facebook pages, according to a New York Times analysis of data from the web data firms Tubular Labs and SimilarWeb. In the three weeks afterward, its audience fell by roughly half, to about 715,000 site visits and video views, according to the analysis.
Keith Collins and Sheera Frankel put together a fun quiz in which you try to guess which posts are authentic and which posts come from influence campaigns. I got every single one correct, and if you read this newsletter I bet you will as well!
Google had a big head start as an advertising business in India, but Facebook is eating its lunch, Paresh Dave and Sankalp Phartiyal report:
Facebook’s success has shaken Alphabet Inc’s Google, led by an Indian-born CEO, Sundar Pichai, who has made developing markets a priority.
Google officials in India earlier this year were alarmed to learn that Facebook Inc was likely to generate about $980 million in revenue in the country in 2018, according to one of the sources. Google’s India revenues reached $1 billion only last year.
We hear so often about people who get fired over their tweets, and almost never about people who get fired for their Facebook posts. Well, here is someone who got fired for their Facebook posts:
Guy Sands-Pingot, who was at one point a brigadier general, was tapped to be deputy director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services and was slated to begin in mid-September. Sands-Pingot would have served under an administration that is seeking to significantly cut back on the number of legal and undocumented immigrants and has, with the travel ban, targeted Muslim-majority countries. He would have also helped oversee an agency that recently created a denaturalization unit.
In October 2015, Sands-Pingot posted a link to an article from GOPTheDailyDose.com on Facebook with the headline “If you wipe your butt with your bare hand but consider bacon to be unclean, you may be Muslim.” The link on the page was dead but the headline has been part of anti-Muslim jokes spread on the internet for years, such as “If you were amazed to discover that cell phones have uses other than setting off roadside bombs, you may be a Muslim.”
Reddit isn’t doing enough to insulate its moderators from the abuse they suffer, reports Benjamin Plackett:
In a joint investigation, Engadget and Point spoke to 10 Reddit moderators, and all of them complained that Reddit is systematically failing to tackle the abuse they suffer. Keeping the front page of the internet clean has become a thankless and abusive task, and yet Reddit’s administration has repeatedly neglected to respond to moderators who report offenses.
Noah Buhayar and Sarah Frier write up Facebook’s rapid real Bay Area real estate expansion. It now spans six cities and will soon employ more people in the region — 35,000 — than its home base of Menlo Park even houses.
Is controversial YouTuber Jake Paul doing a bunch of illegal things to push his merchandise? I mean, I would believe it!
In one especially painful example, Nerd City highlights Paul’s video “THE BEST SONG WE’VE MADE YET,” in which the YouTuber relentlessly plugs his merch, tour, music, and more in nearly half of a 14-minute video. “Jake understands and leans into heavy repetition as a principal of advertising … the words are artificially jammed into the sentences he says,” Nerd City says. For those who are too young to buy his products on their own, Paul encourages kids to ask their parents directly — a practice sometimes described as “pester power,” which is prohibited in the European Union via the Unfair Commercial Practices (UCP) Directive.
Twitter is testing threaded replies and presence indicators.
The app formerly known as Musical.ly adds a video commenting feature:
Instead of text comments, these reactions will take the form of videos that are essentially superimposed on top of existing clips. The idea of a reaction video should be familiar to anyone who’s spent some time on YouTube, but TikTok is incorporating the concept in way that looks like a pretty seamless.
Tim Wu’s new book is called The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age. In it, he argues for a return to aggressive antitrust enforcement in the style of Teddy Roosevelt, saying that Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other huge tech companies represent a threat to democracy. He argues that Facebook should be required to sell off WhatsApp and Instagram:
“We live in America, which has a strong and proud tradition of breaking up companies that are too big for inefficient reasons,” Wu told me on this week’s Vergecast. “We need to reverse this idea that it’s not an American tradition. We’ve broken up dozens of companies.”
And finally …
In 2011 the people of Sweden had a crazy idea: what if it handed the keys to the national Twitter account to a different citizen each week? After 200,000 tweets from 365 different citizens, the account is now shutting down. But let us never remember the fun times we had:
The first curator was nicknamed “the masturbating Swede” after he detailed his preferred leisure activities. Others have fought with Denmark and Donald Trump, sparked outrage by asking why some people don’t like Jews, and admitted they’d rather be having sex.