Facebook 'must share information' on Russian interference in UK

Social network is urged to reveal what it knows as expert says it is unlikely Russian professional trolls only used Twitter

Facebook is under pressure from academics and parliamentarians to reveal what it knows about Russian attempts to manipulate British politics, as research efforts flounder against the company’s locked-down social network.

“Facebook has been very silent on this,” said the Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesperson Tom Brake. He said representatives of all major social media companies should be called before MPs “to explain what research they have undertaken into possible Russian manipulation of their sites”.

In the days following the prime minister’s accusation on Monday that Russia was attempting to “weaponise information” and sow discord in the west, attention was focused on Twitter.

Earlier this week the Labour MP Damian Collins called on Twitter to release examples of posts about British politics, similar to the list of 2,752 US political accounts believed to be Russian-run that the company handed to the US Congress.

But the focus on Twitter has only come about because the nature of that social network means it is easier for external researchers to analyse it, said Yin Yin Lu, a researcher at Oxford University. She said it was extremely likely that the network of Russian professional trolls that infiltrated Twitter did not limit its actions to just that site.

“I’m positive the network is very active on Facebook as well,” Lu told the Guardian. “Certainly if you’re making a fake social media account on one, you would also make an account on the other. But it’s only Facebook that can answer that question. There are no researchers that have access to Facebook data. You basically have to be Mark Zuckerberg himself.”

Facebook was more influential than Twitter, Lu said, and its larger user base meant it was the perfect place to go to try to influence voters.

Brake called for Facebook and Twitter to be brought before parliament to give the detail that researchers had been unable to uncover from the outside. “Ignorance of such practices is not good enough,” he said. “This was the most important vote the country faced in a generation, that divided the nation down the middle, and we need to know as a matter of urgency if it was compromised.

“Theresa May has shown extraordinary naivety in saying that Russia has interfered in the elections of other countries but not elections in this country. But then on Brexit, Theresa May and Vladimir Putin are in a fairly similar place – both seem to support an extreme and damaging Brexit.”

On Thursday, May renewed her attack against Russia, telling Wired magazine: “What is crucial at the moment is the challenge that Russia is posing in terms of the norms-based international order, and we will work to protect that and we will work with our allies on that particular issue.”

But she declined to heed calls to be harsher on the technology firms that enabled Russian interference. “Talking to the tech companies is a wider issue,” she said. “We are working with tech companies on whole variety of issues around digital security … This is a whole conversation we’re having with tech companies, which is very important.”

In the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election in November 2016, Facebook was dismissive of the idea that it could have been involved in his victory. Zuckerberg, the chief executive and founder, said the suggestion that fake news on the site had swayed voters was a “crazy idea”.

But as the site came under increasing pressure in the US for its role in enabling Russian influence operations, Facebook eventually began internal investigations into what, exactly, had happened.

In September, after more than 10 months of research, the company admitted that 3,000 adverts, linked to 470 “inauthentic accounts”, were bought “in violation of our policies”.

“We know we have to stay vigilant to keep ahead of people who try to misuse our platform,” said Facebook’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, at the time. “We believe in protecting the integrity of civic discourse, and require advertisers on our platform to follow both our policies and all applicable laws. We also care deeply about the authenticity of the connections people make on our platform.”

Stamos did not respond when the Guardian asked whether Facebook would carry out a similar investigation into its role in enabling influence operations in Britain.

A Facebook spokesperson said: “We’re engaging with the Electoral Commission and are working with them.”

Facebook also pointed the Guardian to a post from the commission, in which Bob Posner, the Electoral Commission’s director of political finance and regulation and legal counsel, said: “Our inquiries build on learning from our investigations and post-electoral event reports.

“They include discussions with parties and campaigners that use digital campaigning and discussions with social media companies about how their platforms are used and how their proposed self-regulation would operate. This includes speaking to Facebook and Twitter about political advertisements during the referendum and general election.”


Alex Hern

The GuardianTramp

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