Damage Control at Facebook: 6 Takeaways From The Times’s Investigation

In fall 2016, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, was publicly declaring it a “crazy idea” that his company had played a role in deciding the election. But security experts at the company already knew otherwise.

They found signs as early as spring 2016 that Russian hackers were poking around the Facebook accounts of people linked to American presidential campaigns. Months later, they saw Russian-controlled accounts sharing information from hacked Democratic emails with reporters. Facebook accumulated evidence of Russian activity for over a year before executives opted to share what they knew with the public — and even their own board of directors.

In 2015, when the presidential candidate Donald J. Trump called for a ban of Muslim immigrants, Facebook employees and outside critics called on the company to punish Mr. Trump. Mr. Zuckerberg considered it — asking subordinates whether Mr. Trump had violated the company’s rules and whether his account should be suspended or the post removed.

But while Mr. Zuckerberg was personally offended, he deferred to subordinates who warned that penalizing Mr. Trump would set off a damaging backlash among Republicans.

Mr. Trump’s post remained up.

As criticism grew over Facebook’s belated admissions of Russian influence, the company launched a lobbying campaign — overseen by Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer — to combat critics and shift anger toward rival tech firms.

Facebook hired Senator Mark Warner’s former chief of staff to lobby him; Ms. Sandberg personally called Senator Amy Klobuchar to complain about her criticism. The company also deployed a public relations firm to push negative stories about its political critics and cast blame on companies like Google.

Those efforts included depicting the billionaire liberal donor George Soros as the force behind a broad anti-Facebook movement, and publishing stories praising Facebook and criticizing Google and Apple on a conservative news site.

Facebook faced worldwide outrage in March after The Times, The Observer of London and The Guardian published a joint investigation into how user data had been appropriated by Cambridge Analytica to profile American voters. But inside Facebook, executives thought they could contain the damage. The company installed a new chief of American lobbying to help quell the bipartisan anger in Congress, and it quietly shelved an internal communications campaign, called “We Get It,” meant to assure employees that the company was committed to getting back on track in 2018.

Sensing Facebook’s vulnerability, some rival tech firms in Silicon Valley sought to use the outcry to promote their own brands. After Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, quipped in an interview that his company did not traffic in personal data, Mr. Zuckerberg ordered his management team to use only Android phones. After all, he reasoned, the operating system had far more users than Apple’s.

Washington’s senior Democrat, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, raised more money from Facebook employees than any other member of Congress during the 2016 election cycle — and he was there when the company needed him.

This past summer, as Facebook’s troubles mounted, Mr. Schumer confronted Mr. Warner, who by then had emerged as Facebook’s most insistent inquisitor in Congress. Back off, Mr. Schumer told Mr. Warner, and look for ways to work with Facebook, not vilify it. Lobbyists for Facebook — which also employs Mr. Schumer’s daughter — were kept abreast of Mr. Schumer’s efforts.

 

Related:

What Facebook Knew and Tried to Hide (28 min audio)

What Facebook Knew and Tried to Hide

Even when the Facebook leaders understood the problem, they tried to hide it.

Right after the election Zuckerburg was dismissive of the idea that Fake News influenced the election.

People within the company thought he was out of touch.

At the time Facebook was under pressure.

Trump had won the election using social media, but Facebook was dismissive.

Facebook employees saw the tip of the iceberg .  They had been following Russian

Mark wanted to find a technical fix.

Sheryl was thinking about the legal risk and was wondering whether they would find out things they didn’t want to know.  Sheryl was thinking about what the consequences would be.

Sheryl yelled at the security team for investigating Russian interference without formal approval.

The leadership was concerned that Washington was controlled by conservatives who would have an adverse reaction to an investigation or efforts to curb this activity.  Conservatives already think Silicon Valley is a bunch of hippies.

There was pressure within Facebook not to publish anything linking activity back to Russia.  Sheryl(?) also signed off on a policy not to take down the Russian troll accounts.

Mark Zuckerburg was traveling the country, milking cows, and acting as though he wanted to run for President.

Sheryl Sandberg was running her own “Lean-In” brand.

Alex Stamos (Security Chief) briefs the audit committee and the board’s response is to yell at Mark(?) and Sheryl(?)

The leadership holds a big meeting and Sheryl yells at Alex Stamos for

  • not briefing her fully
  • admitting that they hadn’t fully got a grip on the situation
  • suggesting that Russia would likely do this again in the future

Alex has gotten in trouble in the past for being too transparent

The Cambridge Analytical Scandal illustrates:

  • The consequences of surveillance capitalism
  • The potential of Facebook to influence elections

Apple CEO Tim Cook castigates Facebook for their business model.

Facebook conducts an advertising campaign and privately goes on attack using the Washington PR opposition research campaign, which uses the NTK network which publishes propaganda.

Confronted with a Propaganda Scandal, they turn to a PR campaign to create their own Propaganda.

Attacks Apple and Tim Cook.  Attack George Soros, arguing the Facebook’s criticism was masterminded by George Soros.  In taking on Soros they are getting into the smear and conspiracy business.

 

Related:

Damage Control at Facebook: 6 Takeaways From The Times’s Investigation

With Facebook at ‘War,’ Zuckerberg Adopts More Aggressive Style

New approach causes turmoil, driving several key executives from the company and creating tensions with longtime Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg

Mark Zuckerberg gathered about 50 of his top lieutenants earlier this year and told them that Facebook Inc. FB -5.72% was at war and he planned to lead the company accordingly.

During times of peace, executives can move more slowly and ensure that everybody is on board with key decisions, he said during the June meeting, according to people familiar with the remarks. But with Facebook under siege from lawmakers, investors and angry users, he needed to act more decisively, the people said.

.. On Friday, that tension was on display when, during a question-and-answer session with employees at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., he blasted a fresh round of critical news coverage as “bullshit,” according to the people familiar with the remarks.

One employee at the session asked if Facebook could deter leaks by publishing an internal report about how frequently offenders are found and fired. Mr. Zuckerberg said Facebook does fire leakers, but the root cause was “bad morale” perpetuated by attacks in the media.

.. He believes this tougher management style is necessary to tackle challenges being raised both internally and externally, according to a person familiar with his thinking.
.. Mr. Zuckerberg’s new posture could trouble those who feel his “move fast, break things” mantra from Facebook’s early days contributed to many of the company’s current problems. It also has led to confrontations with some of his top reports, including Ms. Sandberg, who has long had considerable autonomy over the Facebook teams that control communications and policy.
.. This spring, Mr. Zuckerberg told Ms. Sandberg, 49, that he blamed her and her teams for the public fallout over Cambridge Analytica
Ms. Sandberg later confided in friends that the exchange rattled her, and she wondered if she should be worried about her job.

.. Mr. Zuckerberg also has told Ms. Sandberg she should have been more aggressive in allocating resources to review troublesome content on the site

.. The heads of some other key Facebook units didn’t survive conflicts with Mr. Zuckerberg.

Mr. Zuckerberg clashed with the co-founders of Instagram

.. The co-founders of WhatsApp likewise left after disagreements with Mr. Zuckerberg over how to generate more revenue from the messaging-service

.. More recently, Mr. Zuckerberg forced out Brendan Iribe, co-founder of Oculus VR, in part because of a disagreement about the future of the Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset

.. Facebook remains hugely profitable, with net income of more than $5 billion in the third quarter, but its margins are under pressure in part because of its increased spending on security.

.. Mr. Zuckerberg has said Facebook is in the midst of a three-year turnaround ending in 2019 to strengthen its defenses against the risks posed by having an open platform.

.. All told, about a dozen senior or highly visible executives disclosed their resignations or left Facebook in 2018. In May, Facebook announced a major reshuffling of top product executives in a way that helped free up Mr. Zuckerberg to oversee a broader portfolio within the company.

.. This turmoil at the top of Facebook has made it difficult for the company to execute on some product decisions and shore up employee morale, which has been sinking over the last year along with the stock price, which has fallen 36% since its peak. Many employees are frustrated by the bad press and constant reorganizations, including of the security team, which can disrupt their work, according to current and former employees.

.. Scrutiny of Facebook has only escalated in the past week after the New York Times reported its use of opposition-research firms tasked with exposing critical information about Facebook’s detractors, including one called Definers Public Affairs. Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Zuckerberg both said the decision to employ the firm was made by Facebook’s communications officials.

Ms. Sandberg’s comments in particular have angered many people on those teams, according to people familiar with the matter, given how closely she tracked and managed Facebook’s media strategy, sometimes getting involved in wording changes. In the internal Q&A Friday, Ms. Sandberg said she took full responsibility for the actions of the communications team.

.. In September 2017, Erskine Bowles, the head of the audit committee and a former Clinton White House official, told Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Zuckerberg that he felt they needed to take the issue of Russian interference on the platform much more seriously.

“This is going to be much bigger than you think,” Mr. Bowles said

.. Later, after the Cambridge Analytica disclosure, the board urged Mr. Zuckerberg to name an executive who would be in charge of corralling Facebook’s response to that matter and resolving other issues before they metastasized, said a person familiar with the matter. After that, he put Ms. Sandberg in charge of that effort.

Mr. Zuckerberg also sought advice from a mentor, former Microsoft Corp. Chairman and CEO Bill Gates. He recommended Microsoft’s model, which relies on Brad Smith to oversee its corporate, external, and legal affairs. Mr. Smith wears the title “president” and reports directly to the CEO.

Reporter Shows The Links Between The Men Behind Brexit And The Trump Campaign

.. there was the stunning revelation that we found out that the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, had actually reached out to WikiLeaks. So it had got hold of Julian Assange. And this was in August, before the Trump election. And he offered to help distribute Hillary’s stolen emails.

So that was a kind of mind-blowing moment for me news-wise because the idea that, you know, we knew that WikiLeaks was consequential in the U.S. election, and we knew that Cambridge Analytica was, but we had no idea that there was a sort of channel of communication between them.

.. The second alarm bell was that Chris had this insane presentation that he pulled out which Cambridge Analytica had given to Lukoil, which is a massive Russian state oil company. And the presentation just didn’t make any sense because supposedly it was the sort of advertising pitching Cambridge Analytica do – commercial work. But the presentation was all about influencing elections. Why would you be pitching a Russian oil company in how to manipulate voters?

.. I do think that it was having an American newspaper which forced Facebook as an American company to take note. And that was also what helped force Zuckerberg in front of Congress. So I do kind of give tribute to our American partners in helping bring that about. I kind of think that Facebook considers the rest of the world as lesser, as less consequential, as less important. And, you know, I really feel that’s what’s happening with its refusal to come to parliament. I really do very seriously think that Britain should consider banning Facebook from having any role in any of our elections because if you’ve got a foreign company which is playing an absolutely pivotal role in your elections but yet it’s completely unaccountable and it won’t even answer questions to lawmakers then I think you’ve got a really, really serious problem in terms of national security.

.. another British figure who Americans are probably not familiar with but played a key role in the Brexit campaign and may be a link to Russia. And his name is Arron Banks.

.. So Arron Banks, he’s a businessman based in Bristol, in the West Country here, and he’s the bankroller of it. So Arron Banks gave more money towards the Brexit campaign than any other person in Britain. And he is this strange and – I wouldn’t say strange character, but there’s just so many questions. Essentially, we don’t know where Arron Banks’ money comes from. And that is a source of one other investigation into Britain. He’s married to a Russian woman, Katya Banks.

.. And one of the key people he met in London was Ambassador Yakovenko. And Ambassador Yakovenko is described by Mueller as a high-level contact between the Trump campaign in the Kremlin.

.. We had two Brexit campaigns in Britain. That’s why I have to make the distinction. And on the same day that he launched it, he went to the Russian Embassy with his associates, and at the Russian Embassy, we know that the Russian ambassador introduced him to an oligarch called Siman Povarenkin, and Povarenkin offered him a couple of lucrative potential business deals. One of them was a gold deal. It was about buying into six separate gold mines and consolidating them. And one was this very intriguing one. Alrosa, it was called. And that was a state diamond mining company in Russia.

.. He always said he had met the Russian ambassador. But he’d met him only once. He’d had one boozy lunch with him. And this was something he’d carried on saying for – for two years, he said that. He had that line very consistently. And now – we’re now up to – it’s 11 meetings between him and the ambassador, or between his associates and the political secretary at the embassy.

And it’s just, why did he lie about it? Why did he lie about it? It’s, like, always the question you come back to with these things.

.. People in America, I don’t think, have realized this fully. And people in Britain certainly haven’t realized this fully. But they overlap very, very distinctly. And, you know, one of the points we have in common with America is simply that our laws and our democracy was not prepared for what hit it in 2016. And by that, I mean because all of our laws were around sort of ensuring that our vote was free and fair in terms of a sort of 19th century model of how you run elections and how you control spending. And with the rise of the Internet, that just changed everything.

.. So in just a few years, everything is being done via Facebook, and to some degree, via Google. And that’s all in complete darkness. So the thing about Facebook, and the thing which is so frustrating in terms of being able to get any answers from it, is that these are black boxes.

.. And we know that all of these advertisements, which were shown in the referendum, all the data went through the Facebook’s servers. They know a lot of the answers we’re scratching around as journalists and trying to figure out from the tiny clues left on the surface.

And it comes back to, time and time again, the role of Silicon Valley in these elections is the really, really key thing. And Russia exposed that weakness.

.. The Russian Embassy Twitter account is this extraordinary thing. It trolls me. It trolls other journalists. It trolls, like, MPs. And I thought it was the Russian Embassy first. And it had my article about Arron Banks and the gold deals and his meetings with the embassy. It had a picture – a screenshot of that. It put fake news stamped over it. And then it said, this journalist lies, or this journalist conspirator or something. And it tagged me into it.

And then I realized it wasn’t even the Russian Embassy Twitter account. It was the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Twitter account. So this is the Kremlin. This is the government agency in Moscow, which directs all of Russia’s foreign affairs, targeting me specifically via its Twitter feed and calling me a conspirator and writing, fake news, and going in to defend Arron Banks and Nigel Farage, interestingly.

.. And the thing is about it, this thing is just being normalized. It does it in this jokey way. And this is also what we saw from the Leave EU campaign – Arron Banks and Nigel Farage’s campaign. By doing things in this jokey fashion, it normalizes it. And then you go a bit further.

.. the Russian Embassy started writing me letters and calling my journalism – calling me a bad journalist and with an agenda and spreading lies, et cetera. And at the same time, Arron Banks and Nigel Farage’s campaign were retweeting the Russian Embassy. And then they did this, like, mock video of me, so they took a clip of the film “Airplane!” and it was a woman being hysterical in the film. It’s like a spoof. People come and slap her around the face, and then they threaten her with a gun. They’d Photoshopped my face into that video, and they’d added the Russian national anthem to the music behind it.

.. And again it looked like a joke. It was like ha ha ha ha ha ha (ph), look at this hysterical woman. But it was intended to unnerve me. And initially, I was just kind of like, well, this is just weird. But then hundreds – literally thousands of people actually reported that to Twitter and to the police and to Leave.EU and it didn’t come down. And this is why what is going on on the Internet is – and that the role of the tech giants is so invidious and so problematic because Facebook and Twitter and Google, it look – these look like public spaces. We are all communicating through them and mingling in them, but they’re not. They’re private companies. And this is why the Russian government has been able to exploit these things in the way that it has. And that’s what’s made democracy so vulnerable.

.. because I’m experiencing this kind of viscerally, this information warfare sort of viscerally, and I’m experiencing it from these forces, these campaigns in my own country. So Leave.EU, this is a domestic, political campaign here. And when we get hold of these emails, Arron Banks’ emails, we discovered that they were communicating with the Russian Embassy about social media messaging. This idea that they were actually coordinating in their attacks on certain things that – there’s that those levels of sinister in this which I really don’t think should be treated like a joke.