social network

Facebook hid “Russian influence” and distracted journalists with customized criticism of competitors. NY Times Investigation

The company ordered articles that blacken competitors, ignored data leakage and secretly lobbied their interests in power, follows from the material.

Cardboard figures depicting Mark Zuckerberg at the building of the US Congress, brought by activists. Reuters Photos

The New York Times newspaper released a large investigation into Facebook’s attempt to manage Facebook to cope with the reputational crisis that began after the US presidential election in 2016. At first, under pressure from the public, the company acknowledged that, since 2015, paid-in political advertising related to accounts from Russia has been placed on the social network.

Then it turned out that, due to a security hole, analyst firm Cambridge Analytica, bypassing the service rules, obtained personal data of 50 million Facebook users. The scandal has hit the company’s capitalization, and also led to a large-scale campaign “Udali Facebook”, only aggravating the position of the social network.

The investigation of The New York Times is devoted to how the top two Facebook executives have been trying to defend themselves against the scandal, and what solutions, sometimes unethical, this led to.

What is the NYT material based on?

The authors of the investigation were five reporters of the publication – everyone has extensive experience in political and technological journalism, some have worked in the field for more than 10-15 years. Reporters describe the situation on Facebook based on interviews with more than 50 sources, including current and former employees of the company, government officials and various specialists.

Most of them agreed to the interview only on condition of complete anonymity because of the confidentiality agreement with Facebook and the fear that a conversation with journalists would affect their careers. The main characters of the article, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and CEO Sheryl Sandberg, refused to talk to the press.

Facebook executives don’t want to provoke Republicans and Trump supporters

In December 2015, US presidential candidate Donald Trump posted on his Facebook page a post with a call to completely ban the entry of Muslims into the United States. When the message saw Zuckerberg, he asked Sandberg whether the politician was violating social network rules.

At that time, Sandberg, who was behind the scenes responsible for politics, was in mourning after the recent death of her husband and turned to Joel Kaplan for advice. In the past, he worked for the George W. Bush administration, and over the years he joined Facebook for the position of vice president.

At the meeting, Kaplan opposed the removal of Trump’s publication, explaining that supporters of a politician could regard this as a violation of free speech. Zuckerberg was not at the meeting, and Sandberg was present only by video link and was silent most of the time. The rest of the managers did not mind. Trump’s post has remained.

Facebook management was aware of political advertising on the social network from Russian accounts and kept silent about it

In the spring of 2016, Facebook’s head of security, Alex Stamos, discovered that certain “Russian hackers” were studying the accounts of people associated with the US presidential race. At that time, the company had no rules on how to deal with such situations. Stamos did not tell the top managers, but continued the investigation.

In the fall of 2016, when Facebook was first accused of trump’s victory over the “Russian track,” Zuckerberg rejected all suspicions and called them “madness.” Stamos was surprised by this, and in December he revealed the information he found to top managers. The news made Sandberg very angry, and she accused the employee of “framing them”. Other executives only wondered why Stamos did not tell everything earlier.

Sheryl Sandberg. Reuters Photos

In early 2017, Zuckerberg went on a trip to the United States to talk with the people of the country. While he milked the cows, he dined with the families of immigrants and studied the features of different states, the rest of the top managers were looking for a way to extinguish the unfolding scandal. By that time, the company had found dozens of accounts associated with Russia and promoting political posts on Facebook, but was silent about this.

In April 2017, the company released a report on the topic of fake and politically colored news and a plan to combat them. It has never mentioned Russia. Zuckerberg did not participate in the preparation and publication of the document.

Up until the fall of 2017, Facebook denied Kremlin involvement in the presidential election through a social network. In September, management revealed that during the investigation, it found 470 unauthentic pages and accounts related to Russia. The appeal stated that they spent about 100 thousand dollars to display 3 thousand advertising posts with a political context.

Facebook has launched a PR campaign against its critics to defend against scandal

In the fall of 2017, Sandberg took over the leadership of a Facebook campaign against critics. She hired the former chief of staff of Senator Mark Warner to lobby for the company’s interests. At that time, Warner was one of the leaders of the investigation into the link to Facebook with interference in the elections. In addition, Sandberg personally called Senator Amy Klobushar and complained about criticism.

Facebook signed a contract with the PR firm Definers Public Affairs, which created and distributed critical news about the company’s competitors, including Google and Apple. They came out on the little-known site of the NTK Network, which was later referred to by major conservative publications. In total, the site published several dozens of critical articles, including billionaire George Soros, who publicly condemned Facebook.

Facebook management was aware of user data leakage, but was silent

In March 2017, The New York Times, The Observer and The Guardian spoke about the activities of the research firm Cambridge Analytica, which bypassing the rules gained access to the data of 50 million Facebook users. As the media wrote, the information obtained allowed us to form a profile about American citizens and use this before the 2016 presidential election.

A few days before the Cambridge Analytica publication, NYT journalists approached Facebook to comment on the leak. After that, Zuckerberg and Sandberg decided to break off all relations with Cambridge Analytica before the release of media materials, hoping to make a preemptive maneuver and avoid public criticism. When this failed, the company appealed to its government lobbyists to quell the outrage in the US Congress.

Zuckerberg demanded that all top managers abandon the iPhone in favor of Android amid criticism of the head of Apple

In March 2018, Apple CEO Tim Cook said that he and his company would not have fallen into a situation similar to the one that arose from Facebook. He clarified that the company suffered from a lack of self-regulation, adding that Apple treats data protection as the right of any person.

Soon after, Zuckerberg demanded that company executives use Android phones, but he explained this by saying that the audience of this system is much larger than that of Apple. As noted by The Verge, some top managers of the company still use iPhones in everyday life.

Despite the scandal, Facebook has kept influential supporters in the government

One of the main supporters of the social network in the US government remains Senator Chuck Schumer. He sided with Facebook, in which his daughter works, after the first accusations in the fall of 2016. Then, during a charity campaign on Facebook, he collected almost 39 thousand dollars.

In the summer of 2018, Schumer met with Senator Mark Warner, investigating Facebook’s connection to the “Russian footprint.” During the conversation, Sumer advised him to “back off” and stop criticizing Facebook, instead looking for ways to cooperate with the leadership of the social network.

Reaction to the investigation

After the publication of the investigation, Facebook ceased cooperation with the firm Definers Public Affairs. A spokesman for the company said that management had never paid or ordered an article from DPA, and cooperation with the company was limited to helping in cooperation with the press. Source The New York Times reported that Zuckerberg and Sandberg did not know about the publications DPA.

Investigation was commented by a member of the US House of Representatives, David Chichillin, stating that “Facebook’s regulation methods cannot be trusted. He explained that the company’s management will always put personal gain above the interests of users.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]It’s time to take action. I’m sure that, despite Facebook’s attempts to buy Congress’s silence, the rights of American citizens will triumph.[/perfectpullquote]
David Chichillin
US Rep.

As noted by the Recode, the investigation of The New York Times raises the question of whether someone will be fired from the company’s top managers. When the scandal unfolded around Cambridge Analytica, Zuckerberg admittedthat he was personally responsible for what happened, “and if anyone should be fired, it’s me.” When the journalist asked if the creator of Facebook plans to quit, he declined to answer: “Not during this podcast, no.” Zuckerberg controls 60% of the company’s shares, so the board of directors will not be able to easily strip him of his position.

It follows from the NYT material that at least for the first time Zuckerbegg did not know about the scale of the problem in the company, while Sandberg tried to solve them through contacts in the government. According to The Verge, the investigation puts Sandberg in a very difficult position, exposing him as a top manager who failed to protect the company’s reputation. Moreover, she did not use official methods, but secret lobbying and misinformation, which only aggravates the situation. The Intelligencer publication in its note on the NYT investigation indicated that, on the one hand, Facebook was in favor of fighting fake news, and on the other, the company’s top manager was using disinformation to deal with critics.

Journalist Recode suggested that Joel Kaplan could leave the post of vice president, as he also did not extinguish the scandal around the company. If so, then this will not be the first high-profile case of the departure of top managers from Facebook. Earlier in 2018, WhatsApp head Jan Kum and Instragram founders Kevin Sistrom and Mike Krieger left the company due to disagreements with the leadership.

Coincidentally, on the eve of the publication of the investigation, the Wall Street Journal published the results of a survey on the theme of the working atmosphere on Facebook. It follows that 72% of employees are proud of working at a company, and 52% are positive about the future of the company. For comparison, in 2017, these figures were 87% and 84%, respectively.

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