SXSW 2019: Can Facebook Handle Its Election Security Role?

Misinformation, fake accounts and a host of other issues have emerged out of online platforms once heralded as the saviors of democracy. Now, the companies are having to catch up to bad actors with a variety of agendas.

by / March 12, 2019
Katie Harbath, Facebook’s public policy director for global elections, discusses the role social media platforms play in global misinformation campaigns during a panel at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas on March 11, 2019. Government Technology/Eyragon Eidam

AUSTIN, TEXAS — The discussion around securing elections broke away from the standard cybersecurity fare and turned to the ill effects of social media and misinformation during a panel at South by Southwest on March 11. 

The panelists, who included representatives from the New York Times, Facebook, the Atlantic Council and BlueDot Strategies, discussed the damaging and largely unforeseen role platforms like Facebook and Twitter have had on elections around the globe.

From the perspective of Katie Harbath, Facebook’s public policy director for global elections, concerning activity started months before many in the U.S. were talking about misinformation and political ads flowing through the platform.

“For me, where I really started to see things shift was not November 2016, but May 9, 2016,” Harbath said. “That was the date of the Philippines [general] election.”

That election was followed in short order by the Brexit vote June 23 and highlighted the need for attention on the part of the company and the social media ecosystem as a whole. Misinformation campaigns, fake accounts and what Harbath refers to as “false news” were showing signs of traction in those elections. 

Harbath said the company’s “new normal” consists of a handful of priorities: taking down fake accounts; dealing with false news; improving transparency around political ads; and countering foreign and domestic bad actors.

“This is our new normal,” she said. “What we are doing now, (and) we are putting a ton of resources in, is — how do we get to a point where we can mitigate as much of the bad as possible, make sure we have the team set up to handle anything that might come our way that we weren’t expecting?”

As examples in the Philippines and U.K. starkly illustrate, the problem stretches far beyond the borders of the United States. Moira Whelan, founding partner of BlueDot Strategies, said the tools once seen as a great democratizing force are now being turned against democratic efforts.

What initially was seen as an opportunity to have robust debates in countries with only state-run media outlets quickly showed the potential for misuse in the global political arena.

“My old job was as the deputy assistant secretary for digital strategy with the U.S. State Department … where I got to, one, convince a bunch of world leaders that social media was a good idea, and then watch as ISIS and Russian trolls tried to tear it all down,” Whelan said anecdotally. 

Now that the proverbial cat is out of the bag and those with an agenda and the ability have platforms to spread their message, what’s to be done? As it turns out, the answer is nothing short of costly and labor-intensive. 

For the Facebook network, which also includes Instagram and WhatsApp, Harbath points to 40 or so teams dedicated to looking at content for signs of foul play. But even with the resources and money that Facebook has, issues arise like context of political commentary, native language translations and a host of other considerations.

“The United States is the exception, not the rule generally in most anything that has to do with an election,” Harbath said.

Partnerships with the likes of the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of Investigation help the company to coordinate on issues regarding U.S. elections, but Harbath said the problem is multifaceted and often spills off of the pages of Facebook and onto smaller networks that may not have the ability or skill to take action.

“This activity isn’t just happening on our platforms, it can get pushed out to other, smaller platforms that may not have as much money and resources and stuff that we do in which to do this,” Harbath said. “We’re trying to look at, how can we help the overall ecosystem get better at this?”

Graham Brookie, director and managing editor of the Digital Forensic Research Lab within the Atlantic Council, said building up “digital resilience” across the social media and Internet environment is essential to mitigating many of the issues platforms and governments are grappling with.

Before any of that can happen, though, Brookie said understanding the spread and digestion of information in these countries needs to be a priority.

“If you’re going to look at disinformation and how it spreads in that particular community, you need to know how people actually consume information in that community,” Brookie said.

In Macedonia’s naming referendum, for example, Brookie pointed to the fact that much of the information consumed in the country comes from television — to the tune of 92 percent — and social media, specifically Facebook. That's an important factor in determining where to focus efforts that target the spread of disinformation.

The global nature of the problem does not lend itself well to policy creation and simple fixes, but Brookie says a first step in any legislation would be having lawmakers who understand the space.

“First and foremost, I think the bottom line is that you need policymakers that know what the Internet is,” he quipped.

New York Times technology columnist Kevin Roose pointed out the almost surreal nature of the situation and how the sanctity of elections across the globe relies so heavily on private companies in other parts of the world.

“The fact that … the integrity of global elections relies on a few people in California and D.C. and New York is just incredibly strange, and I don’t think we should accept that as status quo because that is the product of intentional decisions that platforms have made to expand into countries where they don’t have enough infrastructure to support safe elections,” he said. “That’s one of the things that I will be sort of looking for in the years ahead — not only can we play a more effective game of whack-a-mole, (but whether) the places that distribute news, whether it’s the cable news channels in the local Macedonian market or the big global platforms, whether they are actually willing to make changes to their products or just sort of beefing up their policy staff.”

Eyragon Eidam Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.

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