One thing Facebook started doing after I joined is we began publicly announcing coordinated inauthentic behavior (a somewhat vague term that means using fake accounts to artificially boost information designed to mislead) takedowns. We’ve found more than 100 of these in the last three years and we announce them and publicly share info and give this to third-party researchers so they can give their own independent assessment of what’s happening. As a result, these operations are getting caught earlier and reaching fewer people and having less impact. That’s also because government organizations, civil society groups and journalists are all helping to identify this.
What that means is that their tactics are shifting. Foreign adversaries are doing things like luring real journalists to create divisive content.
Are these malicious actors trying to use fear to get us to manipulate ourselves?
Influence operations are essentially weaponized uncertainty. They’re trying to get us all to be afraid. Russian actors want us to think there’s a Russian under every rock. Foreign actors want us to think they have completely compromised our systems, and there isn’t evidence for that. In a situation like this, having the facts becomes extremely useful. Being able to see the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of these campaigns is useful. It’s a tool we can use to help protect ourselves. We know they’re planning to play on our fears. They’re trying to trick us into doing this to ourselves, and we don’t have to take the bait.
It seems we as a nation are our own worst enemy in this respect.
It’s like you wake up in the morning on Election Day and the whole process is this black box. It feels like jumping off a cliff and you land at the bottom when the votes are counted and you don’t really see the things that happened along the way. But really there’s a staircase you can take. There’s a bunch of steps. Voting starts, then officials begin counting ballots. There are controls and systems in place, and at the end you’ve made it to the bottom of the staircase. We need to do our part to show people the staircase and what happens in each moment to say, “There’s a plan to all this.” A threat actor wants to exploit the uncertainty in the election process to make us feel like the system is broken. But that’s harder to do if you can see the system.
How do we protect ourselves and our democracy?
One of the most effective countermeasures in all of this is an informed public. So we have to do the best — all of us, not just Facebook — to amplify authentic information. One of biggest differences between 2016 and 2020 is that you have teams in government, in tech, in civil society that understand the risks and challenges and are working together. We didn’t have this four years ago.
What keeps you up at night?
A year ago we predicted some trends we thought we might see. A number of them have come to pass and we’re ahead of a few things. We’ve seen threat actors target smaller communities trying to hide from us. We predicted that bad actors would move from fake accounts to trying to target influencers. They’ve tried to do it but haven’t reached all that many people because we saw it coming.
When we think of things to be worried about the first is that our elections system is very complex. And there are so many opportunities to leverage that complexity to run a perception hack. A perception hack is an attempt to create a perception that there is a large scale influence operation when in fact there is no evidence to support it. The other big piece is the very tense civic debate around the outcome as votes are counted. You can imagine malicious actors will try to accelerate that debate and that we’re certainly focused on that. Like efforts to claim without any basis that a spike in voting in a swing district or state is evidence of fraud and trying to use that to inspire or incite conflict.