An Oxford professor and researcher are calling on Facebook to cooperate with scientists and share its data on fake news and fake accounts in part because of its relevancy to the Trump/Russia investigation.
During the 2016 presidential election, a considerable amount of fake news and misinformation was pushed on social media via artificial computer programs called “bots.” The FBI is currently investigating how Russian bots used social media platforms during the elections to spread pro-Trump articles from Russian outlets and outlets affiliated with the “alt-right.” Meanwhile, bots continue to push misinformation to influence President Donald Trump’s administration. Due to these concerns surrounding fake accounts and fake news, multiple experts have previously called on Facebook to share its data, as its efforts to combat fake news have thus far failed.
Oxford professor Philip Howard and Oxford researcher Robert Gorwa noted in a March 20 Washington Post op-ed that Facebook’s refusal to share data on fake news and fake accounts “has made it difficult to know how many voters are affected or where this election interference comes from.” They wrote that Facebook “has the metadata to identify precisely which accounts were created, where they operated and what kinds of things those users were up to during the U.S. election.” That could also mean that Facebook could help determine if “there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian influence operations” and could “prevent interference with democratic deliberation” going forward. From the op-ed:
Facebook deployed a “cross functional team of engineers, analysts and data scientists” as part of a detailed investigation into possible foreign involvement in the U.S. election. They found fake groups, fake likes and comments, and automated posting across the network by unnamed malicious actors. The report’s authors claim that their investigation “does not contradict” the findings made in the U.S. Director of National Intelligence report published in January, which blamed Russia for a sweeping online influence campaign conducted in the lead-up to the election.
Essentially, this confirms what researchers have suspected for several years: Large numbers of fake accounts have been used to strategically disseminate political propaganda and mislead voters. These accounts draw everyday users into “astroturf” political groups disguised as legitimate grass-roots movements. Unfortunately, Facebook’s refusal to collaborate with scientists and share data has made it difficult to know how many voters are affected or where this election interference comes from.
Facebook, of course, does not have the same issues with data access. It has the metadata to identify precisely which accounts were created, where they operated and what kinds of things those users were up to during the U.S. election. Their data scientists could probably provide some insights that the intelligence services cannot.
If there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian influence operations, Facebook may be able to spot that, too. In many ways, massive coordinated propaganda campaigns are just another form of election interference. If Facebook has data on this, it needs to share it. The House Intelligence Committee should call Facebook to testify as part of its investigation.
While the outcome of the U.S. election is settled, major elections are coming up around the world. Facebook needs to tell us what it knows and demonstrate that it can prevent interference with democratic deliberation.