When Russian Facebook ads are finally released to the American public, much of the news coverage will laud this as a major step toward transparency in telling us what happened. But the reality is that the company has been extremely slow to reveal the truth, and revelations of these ads does not suffice. It would not only be false to believe that Facebook will have then satisfied a need for information. It would be highly misleading. What’s needed is an act of radical–far more comprehensive–transparency.
It took great effort to get Facebook to release even the current amount of information on Russia’s misuse of the platform. “Why has it taken Facebook 11 months to come forward and help us understand the scope of this problem, see it clearly for the problem it is and begin to work in a responsible legislative way to address it?” asked Senator Chris Coons on Tuesday at the Senate Judiciary’s Subcommittee hearings. But how much has Facebook come forward?
With every new disclosure, what is known about the scale of the Russian disinformation campaign on Facebook multiplies. The latest disclosures from Facebook suggest that at a minimum Russian propaganda reached as many as 126 million people in the United States, and 29 million people encountered such content directly. Perhaps most ominously, we have focused for weeks on the 470 Russian accounts that Facebook revealed. But we now know that Facebook disabled 5.8 million fake accounts in October 2016, and that sweep apparently just missed the 470 accounts. How many have been appeared since then, and how many have been purged? It seems these figures are just the tip of what Facebook keeps hidden below.
Here are three reasons Mark Zuckerberg needs to commit an act of radical transparency and disclose all of the propaganda content–every interaction with a fake account, every fake page, fake event, fake ad or fake message- produced by adversarial state actors, starting with Russia.
1. Radical transparency fills the major gap in the current level of public information (a.k.a. the ads were clearly the least significant element of the propaganda campaign on Facebook)
Purchased for around $100,000, we know these ads contained content that is abhorrent. A few were revealed today in the Judiciary Committee hearings. But conservative commentators seeking to minimize the potential impact of Russian propaganda on the 2016 election seized on the ad spend number provided by Facebook as a way of dismissing the efficacy of the Russian effort. In a piece titled “The Facebook Farce,” for instance, National Review’s Rich Lowry summed up this line of thinking in a pithy opening paragraph:
We are supposed to believe that it bought the American presidential election last year with $100,000 in Facebook ads and some other digital activity. Frankly, if American democracy can be purchased this cheap — a tiny fraction of the $7.2 million William Seward paid to buy Alaska from the Russians back in 1867 — it’s probably not worth having.
The “other digital activity” he dismisses so flippantly in order to get to the punchline was, however, far more significant than the ads themselves. Facebook’s own estimates are below that of independent researchers like Columbia University’s Jonathan Albright, whose findings suggest possibly billions of impressions for Russian pages and events on the platform–that is if one dares look outside the category of paid ads. And the disclosures seem to keep coming- every week new details emerge on the reach of these efforts and revise upward the size of the reach and effect.
2. Radical transparency is the only way for the American public to understand the scope of the Russian attack.
Looking forward, many in media and technology circles believe a key solution to the spread of fake news, misinformation and propaganda online is better media literacy and a more critical approach by users. What better way to inform the public about the dangers of social media than to have an educational exercise telling them exactly what happened to them personally in this most recent, brazen propaganda attack? I have argued that Facebook should enable a feature – similar to current applications on the Facebook platform that allow users to see past interactions with friends and with advertisers – which would in this case provide users the ability to understand their exposure to known Russian propaganda, before, during, and after the 2016 election. Such a gesture would go a long way toward educating Americans about the dangers of covert and malicious actors on social media, and toward informing the democratic dialog we desperately need to have about proper rules to regulate social media.
3. Radical transparency is the right thing to do to “bring the world closer together.”
In a deeply polarized America, citizens distrust established institutions. From government to the news media, big business to the church, Americans are wary of what should be some of the pillars of our democratic society and ways of life. The Russian propaganda in question was part of one of the most divisive campaigns in modern American history. The election then brought to power one of the most polarizing presidents along racial, gender, class and other lines, and a leader who regularly drives a wedge between public understanding and reliable sources of information. It is in this context that Facebook has the opportunity to truly realize its mission.
In July of this year, as the platform approached 2 billion users, Zuckerberg revealed a new mission statement, to “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Perhaps perversely, one of the most important things Facebook can do to bring Americans together is to help them to understand the forces that seek to pull them apart. The nation needs to get to the bottom of what happened if it is to move forward and address its wounded trust.
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Mark Zuckerberg has some choices to make. Does he continue to hold onto the facts, or does he commit an act of radical transparency, and show Facebook users the full truth about how they were exposed to Russian propaganda? Does he lead his company forward, or continue to hide behind his lawyers and public relations team? Zuckerberg recently announced a move toward a “new standard for transparency.” That sounds good. Perhaps he’ll then decide to take the long view, and realize that to deliver on his company’s mission he owes a lot more to the democracy that created the conditions in which his global technology company could thrive.