Facebook’s Global Data: A Parallel Intelligence Source Rivaling NSA

In April, Facebook released a laudable (if incredible) report on Russian influence operations on Facebook during the election; the report found that just .1% of what got shared in election related activity go shared by malicious state-backed actors.

Facebook conducted research into overall civic engagement during this time on the platform, and determined that the reach of the content shared by false amplifiers was marginal compared to the overall volume of civic content shared during the US election.

[snip]

The reach of the content spread by these accounts was less than one-tenth of a percent of the total reach of civic content on Facebook.

Facebook also rather coyly confirmed they had reached the same conclusion the Intelligence Community had about Russia’s role in tampering with the election.

Facebook is not in a position to make definitive attribution to the actors sponsoring this activity. It is important to emphasize that this example case comprises only a subset of overall activities tracked and addressed by our organization during this time period; however our data does not contradict the attribution provided by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence in the report dated January 6, 2017.

While skeptics haven’t considered this coy passage (and Facebook certainly never called attention to it), it means a second entity with access to global data — like the NSA but private — believes Russia was behind the election tampering.

Yesterday, Facebook came out with another report, quantifying how many ads came from entities that might be Russian information operations. They searched for two different things. First, ads from obviously fake accounts. They found 470 inauthentic accounts paid for 3,000 ads costing $100,000. But most of those didn’t explicitly discuss a presidential candidate, and more of the geo-targeted ones appeared in 2015 than in 2016.

  • The vast majority of ads run by these accounts didn’t specifically reference the US presidential election, voting or a particular candidate.
  • Rather, the ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.
  • About one-quarter of these ads were geographically targeted, and of those, more ran in 2015 than 2016.
  • The behavior displayed by these accounts to amplify divisive messages was consistent with the techniques mentioned in the white paper we released in April about information operations.

Elsewhere Facebook has said some or all of these are associated with a troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, in Petersburg.

The Intelligence Community Report on the Russia hacks specifically mentioned the Internet Research Agency — suggesting it probably had close ties to Putin. But it also suggested there was significant advertising that was explicitly pro-Trump, which may be inconsistent with Facebook’s observation that the majority of these ads ran policy, rather than candidate ads.

Russia used trolls as well as RT as part of its influence efforts to denigrate Secretary Clinton. This effort amplified stories on scandals about Secretary Clinton and the role of WikiLeaks in the election campaign.

  • The likely financier of the so-called Internet Research Agency of professional trolls located in Saint Petersburg is a close Putin ally with ties to Russian intelligence.
  • A journalist who is a leading expert on the Internet Research Agency claimed that some social media accounts that appear to be tied to Russia’s professional trolls—because they previously were devoted to supporting Russian actions in Ukraine—started to advocate for President-elect Trump as early as December 2015.

The other thing Facebook did was measure how many ads that might have originated in Russia without mobilizing an obviously fake account. That added another $50,000 in advertising to the pot of potential Russian disinformation.

In this latest review, we also looked for ads that might have originated in Russia — even those with very weak signals of a connection and not associated with any known organized effort. This was a broad search, including, for instance, ads bought from accounts with US IP addresses but with the language set to Russian — even though they didn’t necessarily violate any policy or law. In this part of our review, we found approximately $50,000 in potentially politically related ad spending on roughly 2,200 ads.

Still, that’s not all that much — it may explain why Facebook found only .1% of activity was organized disinformation.

In its report, Facebook revealed that it had shared this information with those investigating the election.

We have shared our findings with US authorities investigating these issues, and we will continue to work with them as necessary.

Subsequent reporting has made clear that includes Congressional Committees and Robert Mueller’s team. I’m curious whether Mueller made the request (whether using legal process or no), and Facebook took it upon themselves to share the topline data publicly. If so, we should be asking where the results of similar requests to Twitter and Google are.

I’m interested in this data — though I agree with both those that argue we need to make sure this advertising gets reviewed in campaign regulations, and those who hope independent scholars can review and vet Facebook’s methodology. But I’m as interested that we’re getting it.

Facebook isn’t running around bragging about this; if too many people groked it, more and more might stop using Facebook. But what these two reports from Facebook both reflect is the global collection of intelligence. The intelligence is usually used to sell highly targeted advertisements. But in the wake of Russia’s tampering with last year’s election, Facebook has had the ability to take a global view of what occurred. Arguably, it has shared more of that intelligence than the IC has, and in the specific detail regarding whether Internet Research Agency focused more on Trump or on exacerbating racial divisions in the country, it has presented somewhat different results than the IC has.

So in addition to observing (and treating just as skeptically as we would data from the NSA) the data Facebook reports, we would do well to recognize that we’re getting reports from a parallel global intelligence collector.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

46 replies
    • orionATL says:

      interesting hobby you got there :)

      i’ve always been sceptical of facebook’s claim that “only” 0.1% of its “election sharing” content was from malicious state-backed actors.

      my scepticism has to do with the question of what did facebook use as its denominator? did it choose its denominator deliberately to minimize the apparent influence of malicious state actors. does it have a motive to do so?

      alternatively, could facebook have found another way to present that info that would have emphasized rather than minimized its significance in the american election of 2016?

      • Willis Warren says:

        Facebook doesn’t care about anything but Facebook.  They don’t even think the USA is anything but a stepping stone to a world where Facebook is its own state.  Zuckerberg knows he can win an election by pushing his campaign on facebook and he won’t have to spend a dime.  He’s Trump on steroids in the conflict of interest dept.

        Angry people use facebook more.  Right wing propaganda makes people angrier.  You pretty much have to advocate white supremacy for them to do anything to your profile, and that’s only after the lawsuits started being discussed after someone was run down in Charlotte.

        They’ve done nothing about Russian prop sites.  They never will.  They will hand over information as long as it keeps them from getting sued, I suspect.

         

  1. harpie says:

    Mait Tait reproduced the set of points you mention after “But most of those didn’t explicitly discuss a presidential candidate, and more of the geo-targeted ones appeared in 2015 than in 2016.” and tweeted:

    And the key points. This is nearly textbook for historic KGB disinformation: amplify divisive issues to prise the cracks in society apart.

    • Phil Perspective says:

      Tait doesn’t sound very bright.  That’s what our own oligarchs do themselves.  They’ve been doing that long before anyone ever heard of Putin.

      • orionATL says:

        actually, phil p., if there is a smart-aleck, not very bright comment here, it would be yours, hands down.

        what “our oligarchs do is” and how long they have been doing it is independent of what a ruler in another country would do. if tait has info about putin’s behavior, he can put it out there for us to evaluate, right?

        or do you in your arrogance believe that once one knows what “our oligarchs do themselves”, one knows what all foreign leaders would do with respect to the u. s. – like, you know, britain, germany, japan?

        tait makes a valuable point about the way one important bureaucracy in one important nation russia, behaves: that point is “This is nearly textbook for historic KGB disinformation: amplify divisive issues to prise the cracks in society apart.”… ”

        you do understand don’t you, sneering mastermind, that the russians operate in many different countries in the same way, e. g. sweden, hungary, poland, france, probably uar?

        you do understand, don’t you, that russian actions can have serious consequences, independent of any actions “our own oligarchs do themselves”.?

        or do you understand?

  2. Willis Warren says:

    Most of the Russian sites on Facebook are essentially libertarian or target young libertarians. Which fits nicely into two areas: distrust the gov’t and shut down the public sector.

  3. pseudonymous in nc says:

    This may be true of the NSA as well, but the intel gathering at Facebook, Google, Twitter et al. is opaque even from an internal perspective. It’s widely known that the engineering and marketing/ads sides represent two very different cultures drawn from different recruiting pools and don’t overlap much in day-to-day operations. It’s pretty clear that Facebook has had to spend a lot of time building custom auditing tools just to reach this point of disclosure. One reason I suspect they don’t want to collate and disclose targeting criteria and related metrics because they don’t really know what they’ll find, not because they already know and it looks bad. That doesn’t mean it won’t look bad, in the “really creepy” sense of bad.

    A Euro-style data protection regime isn’t a panacea here, but it does require companies — even Cambridge Analytica! — to build in functionality instead of trying to bolt it on later.

    (As others on Twitter noted, it should be a lot easier for them to identify customers uploading large “Custom Audience” datasets, especially ones that seem to have the same signatures.)

    • emptywheel says:

      There will be two kinds of intelligence collection actually which may accord with your point: the intelligence on customers, and the intelligence collected to protect customers. The former is individualized but can be treated in bulk, the latter will be largely about bulk data.

  4. bloopie2 says:

    Question from a Facebook tyro:  What does your following statement really mean, in context: “They found 470 inauthentic accounts paid for 3,000 ads costing $100,000.”  Is that a “lot” of accounts, a “lot” of ads, a big money spend, in terms of overall (US only?) Facebook activity?  How many “authentic” accounts are there, period?  Do we know how many “page views” there were for these ads, or how many different people saw each ad?  Further as to context, if I browse the Web for a few hours each day, how many different ads am I exposed to over, say, the course of an election campaign?  That might be a useful number to compare.

    I’d also like to know whether everyone thinks that what Facebook has done here, mining and analyzing and reporting, should be allowed?

  5. Willis Warren says:

    Here’s an example of a site that was on facebook before establishing its own domain:

    http://thefederalistpapers.org/tag/putin

    I’ve tagged their traceable putin propaganda in this link.

    They’ve been on facebook for several years at least february of 2015, and I was banned by them for pointing out the Federalist Papers were an argument for big gov’t, not limited.  I remember mocking them for not knowing that, but in hindsight, that seems like a mistake a Russian would make.

    During the election, they went full blown Trump and started publishing pro Putin stories.

    But, originally, they were a right wing/libertarian site.  There are dozens of these sites like this

    • orionATL says:

      fresh off the press from the nytimes:

      https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/07/us/politics/russia-facebook-twitter-election.html?

      read about melvin ridick of harrisburg, pa, and katherine fulton, and alice donovan, all of whom had face book accounts promoting the russian site dcleaks, all of whose sites showed up after dcleaks went on the air, and all of whom did not exist.

      above, i asked what denominator facebook used for its 0.1% number. i still don’t know the answer, but this article says facebook has two billion users. facebook takes down a million accounts a day.

      read about the outline of the russian attack on the u. s. election: first establish a site like dcleaks or gucifer 2.0 and the set up adulatory facebook and twitter accounts by fake users, then use those to lure other readers to those central sites.

      slick and simple once you’ve worked out the horsepower needs.

  6. lefty665 says:

    Here’s a suggestion from M that the Facebook RUSSIA report may really be more a diversion from bad publicity about its own phony ad sales than actual analysis. It is often wise to be a little skeptical of Zuckerberg.

    Facebook: [W]e have found approximately $100,000 in ad spending from June of 2015 to May of 2017 — associated with roughly 3,000 ads — that was connected to about 470 inauthentic accounts and Pages in violation of our policies. Our analysis suggests these accounts and Pages were affiliated with one another and likely operated out of Russia.

    In this latest review, we also looked for ads that might have originated in Russia — even those with very weak signals of a connection and not associated with any known organized effort. This was a broad search, including, for instance, ads bought from accounts with US IP addresses but with the language set to Russian — even though they didn’t necessarily violate any policy or law. In this part of our review, we found approximately $50,000 in potentially politically related ad spending on roughly 2,200 ads.

    M: Unspecific, “potentially politically related”, un-targeted ads bought by some people in the U.S. with a language setting of “Russian”. I wonder how many of these ads were sexual service offers from “Natasha”.

    http://www.moonofalabama.org/2017/09/facebook-claims-russia-nonsense-to-divert-from-its-fraudulent-ad-sales.html#more

    • orionATL says:

      nytimes article cited above seems to imply that russians did not need ads.

      they just set up some central site like dcleaks, gucifer 2.0, then created some fake homeboy/homegirl facebook pages, then used those pages to lure additional viewers to those central sites.

      was facebook’s release of trivial appearing ad info (mere $100k) a p. r. strategy?

  7. orionATL says:

    here’s wapo’s margaret sullivan’s (former nytimes ombudsman – the best they ever had) views on facebook’s pretensions of innocence re the 2016 election:

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/facebooks-role-in-trumps-win-is-clear-no-matter-what-mark-zuckerberg-says/2017/09/07/b5006c1c-93c7-11e7-89fa-bb822a46da5b_story.html?

    sullivan references this study by harvard’s berkman klein center for internet and society:

    https://cyber.harvard.edu/publications/2017/08/mediacloud

    interesting graphics,

    right media leadership taken over by breitbart,

    and this about social media and facebook:

    “… – Disinformation and propaganda are rooted in partisanship and are more prevalent on social media.

    The most obvious forms of disinformation are most prevalent on social media and in the most partisan fringes of the media landscape. Greater popularity on social media than attention from media peers is a strong indicator of reporting that is partisan and, in some cases, dubious.

    Among the set of top 100 media sources by inlinks or social media shares, seven sources, all from the partisan right or partisan left, receive substantially more attention on social media than links from other media outlets.

    These sites do not necessarily all engage in misleading or false reporting, but they are clearly highly partisan. In this group, Gateway Pundit is in a class of its own, known for “publishing falsehoods and spreading hoaxes.”

    – Disproportionate popularity on Facebook is a strong indicator of highly partisan and unreliable media.

    A distinct set of websites receive a disproportionate amount of attention from Facebook compared with Twitter and media inlinks. From the list of the most prominent media, 13 sites fall into this category. Many of these sites are cited by independent sources and media reporting as progenitors of inaccurate if not blatantly false reporting. Both in form and substance, the majority of these sites are aptly described as political clickbait. Again, this does not imply equivalency across these sites. Ending the Fed is often cited as the prototypical example of a media source that published false stories. The Onion is an outlier in this group, in that it is explicitly satirical and ironic, rather than, as is the case with the others, engaging in highly partisan and dubious reporting without explicit irony… “

    • orionATL says:

      sullivan wrote:

      “… ‘Attempts by the [Hillary] Clinton campaign to define her campaign on competence, experience, and policy positions were drowned out by coverage of alleged improprieties associated with the Clinton Foundation and emails,’ the study said.

      The Trump campaign masterfully manipulated these messages. Truth was not a requirement… “

      • lefty665 says:

        Her campaign of incompetence, bad experience and ugly policies was enough to drown her. She didn’t need help from Trump, or as her book whines, Bernie, Biden & Comey. She and Mookie did it themselves. Time to move on, ’18 is beckoning. Dems need to be careful they don’t let Hillary drag them down the rat hole for another election cycle.

        • pseudonymous in nc says:

          The Russians aren’t moving on.

          Or to put it more neutrally: the forces that put a thumb on the 2016 election aren’t moving on, even if your preferred candidates take prominence in 2018 and 2020. And there’s nothing your preferred candidates can do to make them move on.

          • lefty665 says:

            The thumb on the ’16 election was Hillary’s and she sank it. From the looks of her book she is not moving on. If the Dems want to avoid extinction, they need to move beyond Hillary and give people something to vote for. You know, like Sanders or even that Trump fellow did.

            Chuck Schumer with “A better deal: Better jobs, better wages, a better future” clearly understands. Notice there is nothing in that about RUSSIANSRUSSIANSRUSSIANS. Some Dems have figured it out, but clearly some are slow on the uptake.

              • lefty665 says:

                From the link I posted above:

                “The usual “Russia hacked and influenced the election” idiots on the Democratic side of the aisles jumped onto this statement:”

                Be careful you don’t fall into the category of “usual idiots”.

                There’s no evidence the Russians favor any Americans. You’re so vain you probably think this world is about you.

                 

                • orionATL says:

                  let’s see know,

                  we got

                  – flat earthers

                  – evolution deniers (creationists)

                  – climate deniers

                  – holocaust deniers

                  – the conferaracy-was-about-slavery deniers

                  and now we got

                  – the russians-intervened-in-the-u. s.-elections deniers

                  of which lefty has the honor of being a charter member, along with honchos from breitbart, fox, instapundit, etc.

                  good morning, lefty. here is a newsstory to read with you coffee; it should get those denier juices flowing for the day :

                  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/08/opinion/russia-facebook-twitter-election.html?

                  • lefty665 says:

                    Bernie noted yesterday, Hillary ran against the most unpopular candidate in US history and lost. She lost it all by herself, fiddling around the edges by Zuckerberg, the Russians or anybody else was not material.

                    She’s blaming it on everyone but herself, Bernie, Biden, Comey, Russians, even Obama.

                    “Be careful you don’t fall into the category of “usual idiots”.

            • Splashoil says:

              Maybe HRC will get her mojo back with her new book tour.  Current leadership will never recover from the Russian self-licking ice cream cone to capture majorities across the land.  Last time I checked think it was six states in which Democratic majorities ran legislature and had Democratic governors….

               

  8. orionATL says:

    facebook is ptopaganda generating companion to

    this major republican media organization which has been generating and maintaining strong republican voter loyalty across a wide range of issues for the last 20 years of governmental chaos:

    https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/9/8/16263710/fox-news-presidential-vote-study

    since its beginnings in 1996 when murdoch appointed republican political operative roger ailes as ceo, fox news has been the become the principal agent of fanatic republican partisanship and the attending sharp political divide in the u. s. the rigidity of this division among citizens has been increasingly bemoaned among hand-wringers for civility , but without any follow up action to delegitimize fox news and economically punish the murdoch business octopus.

    every english speaking nation which murdock has sunk his claws into has experienced similarly harshly conservative, incompetent governments which routinely fail to meet citizens economic needs.

  9. harpie says:

    Alec MacGillisVerified account @AlecMacGillis [Reporter @ProPublica
     

    Can’t overstate how many of the swing-state voters I spoke with who had the wildest anti-Hillary notions relied on Facebook for their news. / Oh, and perhaps worth noting also that Facebook brought in $8.8 billion in revenue in the 4th Q of 2016, blowing past analyst estimates. 

  10. orionATL says:

    harpie’s and bloopie2’s comments above are a close-up and wide-angle view of what facebook may have done to distort the 2016 election.

    now that others can see the possibilities, i would expect no future election could be considered secure from this very efficient technique for winning hearts and minds (or bending them to your will).

    it seems very likely that the role of facebook and twitter in the 2016 election has been greatly understated, and thatb we have only begun to understand their roles in that election.

  11. orionATL says:

    here’s another good set of questions about facebook’s influence on american voting, this from an academic at va tech (ignore the misleading headline in the guardian itself) :

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/sep/09/mark-zuckerberg-president-facebook-algorithm

    as far i can tell, facebook is being only minimally forthcoming. whether this is from their ignorance of the many ways political activists can exploit their product, or whether from desire to avoid criticism, i can’t say.

    lots more questions need to be asked of facebook with lots more forthcoming answers to those questions from the company, and lots more research done independent of the company. maybe there’s nothing there that’s not already known, maybe not.

    in any event, this is an important discussion emptywheel keeps raising.

    as for mark zuckerberg as a candidate, my impulsive, intuitive answer is – yuuck!

  12. Mitchell F. Senft says:

    Facebook doesn’t care about crap in the newsfeed. Facebook only cares about appearing to care.
    My proof: Facebook is controlled by Peter Thiel as in FB doesn’t do anything of which he doesn’t approve, and responsibility for cleaning up the news part of the Newsfeed is with Campbell Brown and Liz Spayd, two people whose journalistic worth is in the negative.

  13. orionATL says:

    was it $100k that got spent on ads or $150k?

    does it matter? the story keeps rolling along. editors, at least, are interested:

    https://www.wired.com/story/facebook-ties-more-than-5000-political-ads-to-bogus-russian-accounts/

    politico has an account of trump jr.’s meeting with senate judiciary committee that works in the facebook ad buys:

    “… The theory that Russia sought to turn the election gained ground this week as Facebook disclosed that fake Russian accounts hadpurchased for more than $150,000 at least 5,000 political ads on the social media site between June 2015 and May 2017. This prompted Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) to speculate on whether the Trump campaign’s data team worked with Russian operators to bombard voters with fake news. The campaign’s digital director, Brad Parscale, who denies any such cooperation, has agreed to speak with the House Intelligence Committee about just that.

    Nobody thinks that $150,000 worth of ads could sway an election, even though the Daily Beast estimates that even such a modest buy could have reached up to 70 million Americans. The important element in the equation, said Lawfare’s Susan Hennessey on Twitter, wasn’t that Russia tried to influence voter thought, but where it acquired its targeting data. The $150,000 ad buy could have helped the Russians to test their fake news campaigns, optimize the message and then tee up larger ad buys made through legitimate, non-Russian covers…

    …  “How did Trump happen to use the same conspiracy theories that were proliferating on Russian media, both real and fake?” Applebaum asks. Coincidence or coordination?… ”

    http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/09/09/donald-trump-jr-russia-swamp-diary-215589

  14. greengiant says:

    So team Trump claims to have paid 75? 90? million on social media ads, with on site tech advice from Facebook, Twitter and Google. What were those ads? how many ads were there? Who were their technical advisers? As far as Facebook detecting fake accounts, it has been reported that many as half of Putin bot twitter accounts were established as long as 10 years ago with twitter names ending in “8” random digits. Also reported that IRA was on a quota system, which raises the question how much of the bot quotas were met by bot activities.
    Quite the network of Trumpian gamergaters, assange supporters, anonymous*, Russian media, US free speech demonstrators, and twitter pots. Waiting for the vote hacking hammer to drop, again because once you have more than one actor hacking the same target, ( as in DNC ), the least serious, least competent actor is going to screw stuff up for everyone.

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