Ahead of 2020 vote, Facebook boosts election security efforts

Social media giant has also suspended networks of accounts from Russia and Iran that spread divisive political messages.

    Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has pledged to strengthen social media standards and information security policies [Carlos Jasso/Reuters]
    Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has pledged to strengthen social media standards and information security policies [Carlos Jasso/Reuters]

    With just over a year left until the 2020 United States presidential election, Facebook is stepping up its efforts to ensure it cannot be used as a tool to interfere in politics and democracies around the world.

    The efforts outlined on Monday include a special security tool for elected officials and candidates that monitors their accounts for possible hacking as evidenced by login attempts from unusual locations or unverified devices.

    Facebook said Monday it will also label state-controlled media as such, identify fact checks more clearly, and invest $2m in media literacy projects.

    The company also announced it has removed four networks of fake, state-backed misinformation-spreading accounts based in Russia and Iran. These networks had sought to disrupt elections in the US, North Africa and Latin America, the company said.

    In the past year, Facebook said it has taken down 50 such clusters of accounts - a sign that efforts to use its services to disrupt elections are not letting up.

    "Elections have changed significantly since 2016 and Facebook has, too," CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a conference call Monday.

    'False' or 'partly false'?

    The social media network was caught embarrassingly off guard during the 2016 election, having let others use its platform to manipulate voters and meddle with democracy.

    Facebook is now under fire from presidential candidates, legislators, regulators and privacy advocates around the world for problems ranging from election security to alleged anti-competitive behaviour and privacy violations. Many critics see the firm's influences as outsized, and generally negative.

    The scrutiny from all sides has been ramping up. Getting it right in 2020 - or at least preventing a disaster - is crucial for the company. But even if nothing goes terribly wrong, Facebook's efforts are unlikely to mollify politicians and government officials who are concerned about its clout.

    As part of its efforts to clamp down on misinformation, Facebook said it will add more prominent labels on debunked posts for Facebook, as well as on Instagram. It will put labels on top of what are deemed "false" and "partly false" photos and videos.

    But Facebook will continue to allow politicians to run ads containing misinformation. And it has not said much about how it handles misinformation spread on its private messaging services such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger - at least beyond simple measures such as limiting how many times messages can be forwarded.

    Some say Facebook's measures do not go far enough, and they argue that the main problem is the company's fundamental business model, which depends on targeted advertisements and making sure that users stay engaged and entertained.

    Facebook has also said it will add more information about the people or groups who establish or manage Facebook pages. The company said Monday it has noticed groups and people "failing" to disclose the organisations behind pages, which can mislead users into thinking those pages are independent.

    Starting with large pages in the US, Facebook said it is adding a new section about "organisations that manage this page".

    Facebook said it will require pages' creators to add this information in order to run ads. The rule applies to pages that have gone through the company's business verification process and to pages that run ads about social issues, elections or politics.

    Russian and Iranian suspensions

    Meanwhile, Facebook said on Monday that it suspended a network of Instagram accounts operated from Russia and targeting Americans with divisive political messages - with operators posing as people within the US.

    Facebook said it also had suspended three separate networks operated from Iran. Facebook said the Russian network "showed some links" to Russia's Internet Research Agency (IRA), an organisation that Washington has said was used by Moscow to meddle in the 2016 election.

    "We see this operation targeting largely US public debate and engaging in the sort of political issues that are challenging and sometimes divisive in the US right now," said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook's head of cybersecurity policy.

    Gleicher said the IRA-linked network used 50 Instagram accounts and one Facebook account to gather 246,000 followers, about 60 percent of whom were in the US.

    Ben Nimmo, a Facebook-commissioned researcher with social media analysis company Graphika, said the flagged accounts shared material that could appeal to a wide range of voters.

    Most of the messages plagiarised material authored by leading conservative and progressive pundits. This included recycling comments initially shared on Twitter that criticised US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and current President Donald Trump.

    "What's interesting in this set is so much of what they were doing is copying and pasting genuine material from actual Americans," Nimmo told the Reuters news agency. "This may be indicative of an effort to hide linguistic deficiencies, which have made them easier to detect in the past."

    Gleicher said the separate Iranian network his team identified used more than 100 fake and hacked accounts on Facebook and Instagram to target US users and some French-speaking parts of North Africa.

    Some accounts also repurposed Iranian state media stories to target users in Latin American countries including Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Mexico.

    The activity was connected to an Iranian campaign first identified in August 2018 and aiming to direct internet users to a sprawling web of pseudo-news websites that repackaged propaganda from Iranian state media.

    The accounts "typically posted about local political news and geopolitics including topics like public figures in the US, politics in the US and Israel, support of Palestine and conflict in Yemen", Facebook said.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency