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The Age of Misinformation: How Facebook Dealt with Fake News An explosive investigation by The New York Times reveals the steps Facebook took to protect itself from a cascade of crises

AN EXTENSIVE investigation conducted by The New York Times (NYT) into how Facebook dealt with the dissemination of misinformation on its platform has put the tech conglomerate in a precarious situation, yet again.

Fleshed out with interviews of over 50 people associated with the company, the article, a riveting read, gives us a clear and comprehensive picture of how Facebook’s management handled one crisis after the other.

According to the article, Facebook “declined to make available” co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg for comment. Interestingly though, the latest post on Facebook’s company blog is titled “Hard Questions: How Does Facebook Investigate Cyber Threats and Information Operations?“.

And though the company has not made an official statement after the piece was published, the blog post—which puts together older posts written by members of Facebook’s cybersecurity team—seems like a feeble attempt by Facebook to stem the potential backlash from the article.

So let’s take a look at some of the important revelations made in the article.

Facebook and the Russian Can of Worms

The biggest blemish on Facebook’s record has to be its inadvertent complicity in allowing Russian hackers to influence the 2016 US presidential election. In his refusal to take responsibility for his platform, Zuckerberg let the Russia problem fester until it was too big to ignore.

Media reports suggest that Russia’s interference in the presidential elections started somewhere in 2015, a problem Facebook spotted only in the spring of 2016. Even as a team within Facebook was investigating the interference, Zuckerberg was rubbishing claims in the media that Facebook was responsible for the results of the elections calling it a “crazy idea”.

Zuckerberg later retracted his statement by saying “this is too important an issue to be dismissive” and that he regretted his earlier remark.

High-Level Lobbying Campaign

Facebook responded to criticism over its handling of the Russia situation with a combination of dismissal and shrewd corporate strategy.

Here Facebook did two things. One was to shift the blame and bring other tech companies into the controversy and the second, led by Sheryl Sandberg, was to recruit individuals who could influence and navigate the political landscape.

Sandberg hired Joel Kaplan, a “well-connected Republican with ties to the Bush administration, as vice president for corporate public policy.

The article throws up some disturbing facts on the lengths Sandberg went to tackle Facebook’s critics.

The company fought hard to change their “anti-conservative” stand by hiring a Republican opposition-research firm “to discredit activist protestors, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros”.

They also went as far as to recruit a Jewish civil rights group who would label Facebook as being anti-Semitic.

The company hired a public relations firm to put out stories discrediting tech companies like Google, Youtube, Apple and praising Facebook on conservative sites.

Who Cares About Data Privacy?

During an event in Jan. 2010, Zuckerberg said that privacy was no longer a “social norm”. This line of thinking doesn’t come as a surprise as Zuckerberg has constantly undermined user privacy.

In 2007, Zuckerberg introduced ‘Beacon’ to the social networking platform. Beacon was a controversial feature that allowed advertisers to track users’ activity online, a move which Zuckerberg later apologised for.

Facebook’s lackadaisical attitude towards data privacy resulted in one of the biggest data breaches in the form of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

The British electoral consultancy firm linked to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign was accused of harvesting the data of over 50 million Facebook users.

The controversy led to Facebook being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission and resulted in a then loss of  $50 billion in market value.

The NYT article highlights how Facebook thought it could hire someone to lobby Congress in their favour.

Just the Beginning

Facebook has had to deal with not only one scandal after the other but it also saw several high profile exits. In the wake of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica controversy, Whatsapp co-founder Brian Acton had written #deletefacebook in a tweet. Whatsapp had been sold to Facebook in 2014 and Acton had resigned in 2017.

Jan Koum who founded Whatsapp with Acton also quit the following year. Media reports stated that Koum had left over a falling out with Zuckerberg over his plans to weaken the messaging app’s encryption and attempts to use its personal data.

In September, Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger resigned six years after they sold it to Facebook. Bloomberg had reported that the two co-founders were getting frustrated with Zuckerberg’s increasing meddling in Instagram’s day-to-day activities.

This New York Times investigation adds to the continuing woes of Facebook when it is already fighting the menace of fake news and countering allegations of misuse of the platform to influence elections in several countries.

~ENDS~

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