The Technology 202: Joe Biden fundraises off Facebook’s discovery of Russian campaigns against him

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Former vice president Joe Biden has a new fundraising pitch: Help me fight Russian trolls. 

The 2020 presidential candidate’s plea came just hours after Facebook’s announcement that it pulled down a network of Russia-linked accounts criticizing Biden and praising President Trump. Facebook said the campaign — which appeared to have some links to Russia’s Internet Research Agency — bore many similarities to the tactics that the Kremlin used ahead of the 2016 election. 

Biden’s quick jump on fundraising shows it’s not just tech companies that are in a position of relative strength since the last presidential election. While Hillary Clinton was targeted with similar tactics during the 2016 election, much of the details about the Russian campaign on social media did not become available until after election day. Biden now has the opportunity to fight back — and maybe even win the messaging war — before the primary vote. 

And Facebook, too, is fighting to prove it has learned from its mistakes in 2016 and is intervening against election interference earlier. The company’s blitz of security announcements seemed timed to get ahead of chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s hotly anticipated hearing on Capitol Hill tomorrow — and show the company is responding effectively to potential threats to U.S. elections. 

 “That we’ve been able to proactively identify [accounts seeking to influence the election] and take them down is somewhat of a signal that our systems are much more advanced now than they have been in the past,” Zuckerberg said during an interview that aired with NBC’s Lester Holt last night. 

But as Facebook’s systems grown more sophisticated, so do the bad actors’ tactics: The Russian network targeted Americans in swing states, largely with posts on Facebook-owned Instagram about divisive political issues and presidential candidates, my colleagues Tony Romm and Isaac Stanley-Becker report. It was one of four campaigns that Facebook announced it removed yesterday, including three misleading campaigns from Iran.

“They are highly sophisticated,” Zuckerberg said. “They signal that these nation-states intend to be active in the upcoming elections.”

The Russian accounts relied heavily on memes, Tony and Isaac report. That could pose a greater challenge to social networks, researchers told my colleagues. 

“To steal a phrase, a picture is worth a thousand words, and meme-based content is still extremely effective and much harder to detect,” said Graham Brookie, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

They also continued to show an in-depth understanding of U.S. politics, as my colleagues wrote yesterday: “The operation demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the schisms within the Democratic Party as it labors to choose a nominee to face Trump in 2020. One Russian account, which portrayed itself as a black voter in Michigan, used the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag to hammer Biden for gaffes about racial issues. Some of the accounts boosted one of his rivals on the left, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).”

Ben Nimmo, a researcher at the social media analysis firm Graphika, said the Russian actors tried not to be detected by reposting content from real users, including Sanders. He detailed some of the firm’s findings on Twitter:

The Russian campaign appeared to be in the early stages and still building an audience when Facebook took it down, Graphika found. 246,000 accounts followed one or more of the inauthentic Russian accounts, which had collectively made just fewer than 75,000 posts, according to Graphika’s report. 

Expect Zuckerberg to make the case to Congress that Facebook has learned from its election security efforts around the world over the past three years. 

“We face increasingly sophisticated attacks from nation states like Russia, Iran, and China, but I’m confident that we’re more prepared now because we’ve played a role in defending against election interference in more than 200 elections around the world since 2016, including the French Presidential Election, the German Federal Election, the U.S. Midterms and Mexico and India, and the E.U, and we see much cleaner results,” Zuckerberg told reporters on a call yesterday. 

Facebook also announced yesterday that it was making some incremental changes around election security. Facebook is:

  • Launching Facebook Protect, a security product to help defend elected officials, candidates and their staff against hacking. 
  • Rolling out a new tab to show what organizations manage Pages running ads about social issues, elections or politics in the U.S.
  • Labeling state-controlled media outlets that are “wholly or partially under the editorial control of their government” 
  • Adding clearer labels to misinformation marked false by a third-party fact checker
  • Banning ads that suggest voting is useless or meaningless, or advise people not to vote.  
  • Investing $2 million in media literacy efforts to help people understand what they see on Facebook and elsewhere

But it remains to be seen if Facebook’s election security blitz will be enough to assuage lawmakers’ concerns. Democrats have questioned Facebook’s commitment to fighting election disinformation following the platform’s decision to not fact-check politicians’ ads — especially those from President Trump, whom they accuse of spreading baseless claims against Biden and his son’s dealings in Ukraine.

Biden’s campaign praised Facebook for the account takedowns but questioned Facebook’s commitment to election integrity. “Unfortunately, like the Kremlin, Donald Trump continues to benefit from spreading false information, [and] all the while Facebook profits from amplifying his lies and debunked conspiracy theories on their platform,” TJ Ducklo, a Biden campaign spokesman, said in a statement to my colleagues. “If Facebook is truly committed to protecting the integrity of our elections, they would immediately take down Trump’s ads that attempt to gaslight the American people.”

BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES

BITS: 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang thinks Facebook should act like a cable network and be held accountable when politicians use the platform to disseminate ads containing lies. 

“It would be wholly appropriate for them to say, ‘Look, we know we’re a platform that disseminates a ton of the information that voters are getting, and it’s irresponsible for us to air political ads that we know aren’t true,'” Yang said to reporters before a Washington Post Live event yestrday. “So they should at this point accept that responsibility and say we should treat ourselves like a cable network with that discretion, and you should hold us accountable for anything we air that is patently false.”

The New York entrepreneur is just the latest 2020 candidate to take aim at Facebook’s policy not to fact-check politicians’ ads, joining Biden and former Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass). But he disagreed with Sen. Kamala Harris on social media, who has called for Twitter to suspend Trump’s account amid concerns the president’s language incites violence. He said there’s little Twitter can do now that Trump is president.

“I think now the argument to suspend his account is very, very hard to make, because he’s clearly the most prominent public figure in America and saying that he shouldn’t have a Twitter account seems very hard to support,” Yang said. “If there was a time, it was before 2016.”

Yang laid out his views on social media and political speech during a wide-ranging conversation where he positioned himself as a tech-savvy candidate, who would benefit from the expertise of funders like Tesla CEO Elon Musk. He criticized the current state of tech regulation in Washington, poking fun at Congress’s performance during hearings with Zuckerberg in 2018. 

“America thinks that our government doesn’t understand technology,” he said. “We got rid the Office of Technology Assessment in 1995, which was 24 years ago. We all saw the questioning of Mark Zuckerberg when he showed up to Congress, and the joke I make is that wasn’t a surprise visit.”

NIBBLES: U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) are introducing legislation today that would require social media giants such as Facebook to allow consumers to transfer their data to rival tech services. The new bill could provide lawmakers seeking to break up the grip of big tech companies a more moderate alternative to fully dismantling tech giants.

“By allowing social media users to easily move their data or to continue to communicate with their friends after switching platforms, start-ups will be able to compete on equal terms with the big behemoths,” Warner said in a statement.

In addition to allowing users to carry their data to other platforms, the Augmenting Compatibility and Competition by Enabling Service Switching (ACCESS) Act would require companies with more than 100 million users to provide interoperability for competing communications platforms. Users would get to chose a third-party service tasked with maintaining their data. “This bill will help put consumers in the driver’s seat when it comes to how and where they use social media,” Warner said.

The bill, which the trio hope to pass alongside broader privacy legislation now being considered by Congress, has drawn support from consumer rights advocates. “We’re thrilled to see a concrete legislative proposal to provide interoperability for consumers,” said Charlotte Slaiman, senior policy counsel at Public Knowledge. “Interoperability ensures that users benefit from increased competition, and it helps new competitors grow by reaching users that are locked in to their current provider.”

CNN’s Brian Fung notes that tech platforms, including Facebook, support the concept in theory:

BYTES: TikTok removed propaganda videos promoting Islamic State militants and suspended approximately two dozen accounts responsible for spreading the content after the Wall Street Journal flagged the videos, Georgia Wells at the Wall Street Journal reports. TikTok’s struggle to rein in terrorist content as its global user base explodes could worsen tensions with U.S. lawmakers critical of the Chinese company’s moderation practices.

The videos appeared to target TikTok’s overwhelmingly teenage audience. Videos paired flower icons and heart filters with images of Islamic State fighters and propaganda songs. 

“This is an industry-wide challenge complicated by bad actors who actively seek to circumvent protective measures, but we have a team dedicated to aggressively protecting against malicious behavior on TikTok,” TikTok told the Journal. “We continuously develop ever-stronger controls to proactively detect suspicious activity.”

Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet have also been criticized in the past for the spread of Islamic State content, responding with increased moderation efforts, automated technologies and a shared database that allows companies to share terrorist content.

PUBLIC CLOUD

— Zuckerberg said during a call with reporters yesterday that his private recommendations for potential hires to South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) for his presidential campaign did not reflect an endorsement. 

“I think this should probably not be misconstrued as if I’m like deeply involved in trying to support their campaign or something like that,” Zuckerberg told reporters. 

Earlier this year, both Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan sent emails to Buttigieg’s campaign manager with recommendations for potential staff, Tyler Pager and Kurt Wagner at Bloomberg News reported. Two people they recommended were hired, Buttigieg’s campaign spokesman Chris Meagher confirmed. 

Zuckerberg told reporters he has “a number of mutual friends” with Buttigieg from their overlapping time at Harvard University. Zuckerberg visited South Bend in April 2017 and did a live-stream with the mayor.

Warren, who is a fierce Facebook critic, declined to comment on the story when asked by reporters, but she took a shot at Facebook’s influence in Washington.

“They already have way too much influence in Washington and they are helping drive every conversation in a way that will protect Mark Zuckerberg and his company.”

Yang also responded. “To me, if someone like Mark Zuckerberg recommends a staffer to you, then you should assume that you should take a look at that person because they are probably very smart and good at their job and have very relevant expertise,” he said at a Post event yesterday. “So to me, it would have been surprising if Pete didn’t take a look at those staffers or potential staffers.”

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@MENTIONS

  • Google has hired ex-Microsoft executive Javier Soltero to run its G Suite products, CNBC reports.

CHECK-INS

— Coming up:

  • Mark Zuckerberg will testify in front of the House Financial Services Committee in a hearing called “An Examination of Facebook and Its Impact on the Financial Services and Housing Sectors” on Wednesday at 10 a.m.

  • The Senate Banking Committee will host a hearing to examine data ownership, focusing on exploring implications for data privacy rights and data valuation, on Thursday at 10 a.m.

  •  Amazon and Twitter will announce their third-quarter earnings on Thursday.

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