Facebook opens up on vote meddling, but is the shift real?


AP Technology Writer

NEW YORK

For a company bent on making the world more open, Facebook has long been secretive about the details of how it runs its social network – particularly how things go wrong and what it does about them.

Yet last week, Facebook rushed forward to alert Congress and the public that it had recently detected a small but “sophisticated” case of possible Russian election manipulation. Has the social network finally acknowledged the need to keep the world informed about the big problems it’s grappling with, rather than doing so only when dragged kicking and screaming to the podium?

While the unprompted revelation does signal a new, albeit tightly controlled openness for the company, there is still plenty that Facebook isn’t saying. Many experts remain unconvinced that this is a true culture change and not mere window dressing.

“This is all calculated very carefully,” said Timothy Carone, a business professor at the University of Notre Dame. He and other analysts noted that Facebook announced its discovery of 32 accounts and pages intended to stir up U.S. political discord just a week after the company’s stock dropped almost 20 percent – its worst plunge since going public.

But Facebook’s proactive disclosure, including a conference call for reporters with chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, struck a markedly different tone from the company’s ham-handed approach to a string of scandals and setbacks over the past two years. That has included:

CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s infamous dismissal of the idea that fake news on Facebook could have influenced the 2016 election as “a pretty crazy idea.”

The company’s foot-dragging as evidence mounted of a 2016 Russian election-interference effort conducted on Facebook and other social-media sites.

Zuckerberg, again, declining for nearly a week to publicly address the privacy furor over a Trump campaign consultant, Cambridge Analytica, that scavenged data from tens of millions of Facebook users for its own election-influence efforts.

A chastened Facebook has since taken steps toward transparency, many of them easy to overlook. In April, it published for the first time the detailed guidelines its moderators use to police unacceptable material. It has provided additional, if partial, explanations of how it collects user data and what it does with it. And it has forced disclosure of the funding and audience targeting of political advertisements, which it now also archives for public scrutiny.

All of that is in keeping with the image of Facebook that Zuckerberg relentlessly promotes. In his telling, the giant, data-and-ad-driven social network is a force for good in the world that must now reluctantly do battle with “bad actors,” such as Russian agents, who threaten Facebook’s noble mission of “connecting the world.”

Solving such problems, in Facebook’s view, is mostly a matter of more investment, more hard work, more hires and better technology – particularly artificial intelligence.

And Facebook’s newfound passion for openness only goes so far. Of the 32 apparently fake accounts and pages it found, it only released eight to researchers. In a conference call last week, executives declined to characterize the accounts, even in terms of whether they leaned right or left. Facebook left it to researchers at the nonprofit Atlantic Council, a think tank that is helping the company on election interference, to draw those conclusions.

Facebook said its timing was motivated by an upcoming protest event in Washington that was promoted by a suspicious page connected to a Russian troll farm, the Internet Research Agency. Several people connected to the IRA have been indicted by the U.S. special counsel for attempting to interfere in the 2016 election.

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