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Did Facebook merely ‘deflect’ after realizing Russian disinformation?

A New York Times investigative report published this week details how Facebook reacted to the discovery of massive disinformation campaigns run by Russian operatives. Sheera Frenkel, who helped write the story, joins William Brangham to explain what the social network’s leadership knew before the 2016 presidential election and what, if anything, they did to address the problem.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first: Facebook has been in the headlines more than usual lately.

    As William Brangham explains, there are new revelations about how the social media giant has dealt with the discovery of a massive long-term disinformation campaign by Russian operatives masquerading on its Web site.

  • William Brangham:

    Earlier this week, The New York Times published a long investigation into how Facebook first discovered the Russian campaign, what it did about it, and how it then employed some pretty tough tactics to push back on its critics.

    For the record, the "NewsHour" works with Facebook on some video projects.

    The New York Times story was called "Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook's Leaders Fought Through Crisis."

    And one of the reporters on that story, Sheera Frenkel, joins me now from Los Angeles.

    Sheera, thank you very much for being here.

    I wonder if you could start by telling us, at first, when Facebook first discovered this Russian activity on Facebook — and, just for the record, we're not talking about people in St. Petersburg posting pictures of their babies. We're talking about something a little bit more malign.

    What did Facebook discover? What were the Russians doing?

  • Sheera Frenkel:

    The New York Times: So, this is back in spring of 2016. It's the year of the presidential election.

    And someone on Facebook's security team starts to see people that he knows are known Russian actors looking around accounts that are connected to the presidential campaign.

    Flash forward a few months later, and they start to see those same types of accounts — these are known Russian accounts — trying to share content from hacked Democratic Party e-mails with reporters. And they start to get a sense that very summer that there's a bigger sort of campaign under way, there's a bigger sort of influence operation likely under way.

  • William Brangham:

    And when Facebook becomes aware of this, what were — how did executives react?

  • Sheera Frenkel:

    So, there's levels of awareness.

    I mean, at that point, in that summer, the security team that had found the information had taken it up the chain to their people. And Sheryl Sandberg does sit at the top of that chain, though it's unclear at this point how much she was told about.

    Just after the elections, Mark Zuckerberg gets in front of a stage of people and says, it's a crazy idea that Facebook played a role in influence people — influencing people ahead of elections. And at that point, the same people on the security team that have been doing this research realized that, whatever is happening at the company, it's not making its way up to Zuckerberg.

  • William Brangham:

    And so then, a little bit after that, we had the huge Cambridge Analytica scandal, where it was revealed that Facebook had allowed this one data mining firm access to a huge amount of users' data.

    And then, again, this is in the midst of the Russia investigation, the president calling it a witch-hunt. Critics start really piling on Facebook for all of this. What were the critics saying?

  • Sheera Frenkel:

    So, you have got to remember this was a rough year for Facebook even before Cambridge Analytica. They were getting hit again and again and again by reports that the Russians had done a lot on their platform during the presidential elections, and they just weren't finding it.

    Then The New York Times publishes the story which essentially makes the argument that there was a huge breach of privacy at Facebook, that they had allowed this political firm to come in to gather all this data and then to keep the data.

    And so Facebook was facing calls from critics. It was facing calls from politicians that it needed to be regulated. And they go on the offensive. They hire an external P.R. team. They actually hired a number of external P.R. teams.

    But one of them specifically was called Definers. And they essentially try and change the narrative about their company.

  • William Brangham:

    And what was it — what was the narrative that was going on at the time? And how did they try to change it?

  • Sheera Frenkel:

    There was a sense that — there was actually a campaign, I should say, called Delete Facebook. Private people were calling on one another to get rid of Facebook, saying it couldn't be trusted anymore.

    There were advertisers that were talking about pulling out, and there were politicians that were calling for them to be regulated. And the offensive here was interesting. I mean, we said in the headline of our stories, but it was basically to deflect criticism.

    Facebook came out. They would say, we're sorry, we won't do this again, we're investigating what happened. And then at the same time that they were kind of on this apology tour for what had happened, they hired a P.R. firm to try and get people to write about something else and to talk about something else.

  • William Brangham:

    And one of the critics, I know, George Soros, the billionaire financier, had been very critical of Facebook.

    And, apparently, they were also spreading what were not completely inaccurate, but were not really in-good-faith stories about Soros and him potentially funding some of this criticism.

  • Sheera Frenkel:

    And Soros was, in fact, funding some of those groups. So, there was a grain of truth there.

    What they were trying to do was to deflect attention from the company and to say, hey, the real story here is Soros funding anti-Facebook movements. The real story here isn't us. It's companies like Apple and Google, and you should be asking them what they're doing about privacy and security.

    So, time and time again, we see a P.R. company on their behalf trying to deflect attention.

  • William Brangham:

    Facebook said today in a call, as they have said in times prior: We understand that this is a problem. We're trying to address it. We're trying to put an end to this malign use of our platform.

    Does your reporting indicate that they are actually doing things differently now?

  • Sheera Frenkel:

    You know, I have covered Facebook a little while. And when I read the transcript of that call, I had a little giggle to myself, because I think they used that exact same wording after Cambridge Analytica.

    And I'm pretty sure they used that exact same wording after the first congressional hearings in which they admitted that Russia had bought advertisements on their platform.

    They have said again and again that they're sorry, that they're investigating what happened. But nothing in that company has changed. The leadership is still the leadership. The people making the calls are still making the calls.

    And so I think a lot of us are wondering, even with all the new — the new programs they have implemented, the new security personnel they have hired, how much can really change, when the same executives are running — or steering the ship?

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Sheera Frenkel of The New York Times, thank you so much.

  • Sheera Frenkel:

    Thank you.

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