How Facebook's Secret Unit Creates Digital Propaganda Troll Armies To Influence Elections

 

Tyler Durden's picture

by Tyler Durden

 

Authored by Shelley Kasli via GGI News,

Just days after GreatGameIndia exposed how American and Japanese companies could be hacking Indian elections, a recent Bloomberg reporthas revealed how a secret unit of Facebook has helped create troll armies for governments around the world including India for digital propaganda to influence elections. Under fire for Facebook Inc.’s role as a platform for political propaganda, co-founder Mark Zuckerberg has punched back, saying his mission is above partisanship.

But Facebook, it turns out, is no bystander in global politics. What he hasn’t said is that his company actively works with political parties and leaders including those who use the platform to stifle opposition—sometimes with the aid of “troll armies” that spread misinformation and extremist ideologies.

The initiative is run by a little-known Facebook global government and politics team led from Washington by Katie Harbath, a former Republican digital strategist who worked on former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign as well as 2014 Indian elections.

Since Facebook hired Harbath to run their secret global goverment and politics unit three years later, her team has traveled the globe (including India helping political clients use the company’s powerful digital tools to create troll armies for digital propaganda.

In India (many other countries as well) the unit’s employees have become de facto campaign workers. And once a candidate is elected, the company in some instances goes on to train government employees or provide technical assistance for live streams at official state events.

In the U.S., the unit embedded employees in Trump’s campaign. In India, the company helped develop the online presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who now has more Facebook followers than any other world leader.

At meetings with political campaigns, members of Harbath’s team sit alongside Facebook advertising sales staff who help monetize the often viral attention stirred up by elections and politics. They train politicians and leaders how to set up a campaign page and get it authenticated with a blue verification check mark, how to best use video to engage viewers and how to target ads to critical voting blocs. Once those candidates are elected, their relationship with Facebook can help extend the company’s reach into government in meaningful ways, such as being well positioned to push against regulations.

That problem is exacerbated when Facebook’s engine of democracy is deployed in an undemocratic fashion. A November report by Freedom House, a U.S.-based nonprofit that advocates for political and human rights, found that a growing number of countries are “manipulating social media to undermine democracy.” One aspect of that involves “patriotic trolling,” or the use of government-backed harassment and propaganda meant to control the narrative, silence dissidents and consolidate power.

In 2007, Facebook opened its first office in Washington. The presidential election the following year saw the rise of the world’s first “Facebook President” in Barack Obama, who with the platform’s help was able to reach millions of voters in the weeks before the election. The number of Facebook users surged around the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East around 2010 and 2011, demonstrating the broad power of the platform to influence democracy.

By the time Facebook named Harbath, the former Giuliani aide, to lead its global politics and government unit, elections were becoming major social-media attractions. Facebook began getting involved in electoral hotspots around the world.

Facebook has embedded itself in some of the globe’s most controversial political movements while resisting transparency. Since 2011, it has asked the U.S. Federal Election Commission for blanket exemptions from political advertising disclosure rules that could have helped it avoid the current crisis over Russian ad spending ahead of the 2016 election.

The company’s relationship with governments remains complicated. Facebook has come under fire in the European Union, including for the spread of Islamic extremism on its network. The company just issued its annual transparency report explaining that it will only provide user data to governments if that request is legally sufficient, and will push back in court if it’s not.

Facebook Troll Armies In India

India is arguably Facebook’s most important market recently edging out the U.S. as the company’s biggest. The number of users here is growing twice as fast as in the U.S. And that doesn’t even count the 200 million people who use the company’s WhatsApp messaging service in India, more than anywhere else on the globe.

By the time of India’s 2014 elections, Facebook had for months been working with several campaigns. Modi relied heavily on Facebook and WhatsApp to recruit volunteers who in turn spread his message on social media. Since his election, Modi’s Facebook followers have risen to 43 million, almost twice Trump’s count.

Within weeks of Modi’s election, Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg both visited India as it was rolling out a critical free internet service that was later curbed due to massive protests. Harbath and her team have also traveled here, offering a series of workshops and sessions that have trained more than 6,000 government officials.

As Modi’s social media reach grew, his followers increasingly turned to Facebook and WhatsApp to target harassment campaigns against his political rivals. India has become a hotbed for fake news, with one hoax story this year that circulated on WhatsApp leading to mob beatings resulting in several deaths. The nation has also become an increasingly dangerous place for opposition parties and reporters.

However its not just Modi or the Bharatiya Janata Party who has utilize Facebook’s services. The company says it offers the same tools and services to all candidates and governments regardless of political affiliation, and even to civil society groups that may have a lesser voice.

What is interesting is that Mark Zukerberg himself wants to be the President of US and has already employed in succession David Plouffe (campaign adviser to Barack Obama in 2008) and then Ken Mehlman (George Bush Jr.’s campaign adviser in 2004). He is currently employing Amy Dudley (Senator Tim Kaine’s former advisor), Ben LaBolt (Barack Obama’s former press adviser) and Joel Benenson (Hillary Clinton’s former campaign adviser in 2016).

How India’s Fake News Ecosystem Work

Most of us don’t give much thought to what we post on social media, and a lot of what we see on social media is pretty innocuous. However, it only seems that way at first glance. The truth is that what we post online has a frightening potential. According to recent research from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Washington, the things we post on social media could be utilized by software to predict future events – maybe even the next Prime Minister of India.

In a paper that’s just been published on Arxiv, the team of researchers found that social media can be used to “detect and predict offline events”. Twitter analysis can accurately predict civil unrest, for instance, because people use certain hashtags to discuss issues online before their anger bubbles over into the real world.

The most famous example of this came during the Arab Spring, when clear signs of the impending protests and unrest were found on social networks days before people took to the streets.

The reverse of this is also true. Meaning that anger can also be manufactured on social media & once it reaches an optimum level be targeted on to real life events on the streets as we have been witnessing since atleast a couple of years in India with cases of mob lynchings and such.

In India a massive fake news industry has sprung up exercising influence over traditional discourse of politics and has a potential in becoming a security challenge like the Arab Spring if not kept in check. As the debate over mob lynching in India is raging it should be understood that such incidents would not have had such a rapid and massive effect if the youth had not had access to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media that allowed the fake news industry to organise and share made-up videos and information. The mob lynching since the past years are a direct result of the fake news industry spilling over from social media to the real world.

This takes a totally new dimension now that it has been revealed that Facebook & WhatsApp itself colluded with the establishment in creating such “troll arimes” for digital propaganda, resulting directly into violence on Indian soil. This is a clear textbook case of terrorism. Terrorism is defined as ‘the systematic use of terror or violence by any individual or group to achieve political goals’. In this case this terrorism is perpetrated by a foreign company Facebook on Indian soil using digital information warfare. What more are we waiting for to respond to such an act?

Fake News was used very effectively during US Presidential elections. It was part of the official campaign itself run in collaboration with tech companies and it is also being alleged that even the Russians also ran their own network. The same method was used to shape the Brexit debate as well. As we write this the fake news industry is spreading its tentacles in India as well. Many of India’s leading sportsmen, celebrities, economists, politicians have already fallen victim to this by disseminating such fake content. This is a dangerous trend and should be kept in check by our intelligence agencies to avert future disaster.

The way it works in short is like this. Numerous websites and portals of varying degree of legitimacy and funding are floated. Specific news contents are generated for different groups based on their region, ideology, age, religion etc. which is mixed with a heavy dose of soft porn to slowly blend in with their objective. These fake contents are than peddled in social media and specific groups targeted via analytics tools developed by tech companies. As a lot of such fake content is generated slowly it starts getting a momentum of itself and somewhere down the line it is picked up by any unsuspected person of influence – celebrities, politicians and even journalists themselves. What happens after this point is sheer madness.

Whether by choice or by ignorance even the mainstream media starts peddling this nonsense, dedicating their entire primetime news shows in analyzing the fake news, who said what and why and blah blah… instead of identifying where the fake content was generated in the first place and getting it shut. Due to the nature and sensationalism of the generated content and also because its echoed by persons of influence with time this fake worldview has the potential to spill over in the real world with physical casualties, as we have seen in so many lynching cases. If not kept in check it could capture and take over the entire national discourse. We will reach a point where it will be very difficult to keep track of what is fact or fiction and the entire society would be radicalized into different opposing camps all based on lies.

Facebook & Indian Elections

What is more is that the Election Commission of India itself has partnered with Facebook for voter registration during election process. Dr.Nasim Zaidi, Chief Election Commissioner, Election Commission of India, said “I am pleased to announce that the Election Commission of India is going to launch a ‘Special Drive to enrol left out electors, with a particular focus on first time electors. This is a step towards fulfilment of the motto of ECI that ‘NO VOTER TO BE LEFT BEHIND’. As part of this campaign, Facebook will run a voter registration reminder in multiple Indian languages to all the Facebook users in India. I urge all eligible citizens to enrol and VOTE i.e. Recognize your Right and Perform your Duty. I am sure Facebook will strengthen Election Commission of India’s enrolment campaign and encourage future voters to participate in the Electoral Process and become responsible Citizens of India.”

All 17 American Intelligence agencies have raised serious concern about the impact of this fake news industry on their election process and their society. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center a majority of Americans (a whopping 88%) believe that completely made-up news has left Americans confused about even the basic facts. And we in India are heading towards a worst scenario than this. Why? Because unlike India, the US Government and Intelligence community has publicly addressed this issue and are working towards resolving this menace. Will Indian govt address such meddling by Facebook in India’s internal affairs?

Committees after committees are being setup, senate hearings are being convened to reach to the bottom of this and new Units are being created to effectively counter this threat to their society. While Facebook is being investigated for meddling in US Presidential elections not much focus has been given to how Facebook’s secret unit has influenced elections in India. In light of these revelations Facebook’s interference in India’s elections should be thoroughly investigated. Ofcourse in order to do so first the Govt should have to acknowledge the existence of this fake news industry in order to take action against it.

Along with Facebook, American Microchip Inc and Japanese Renesas contracted by Election Commission for fusing secret EVM code should also be investigated for interfering in India’s elections and all those who colluded with them. It will be a grave mistake to take this threat of foreign companies interfering in India’s elections lightly.

 

 

 

How Facebook Rapes American Minds and Manipulates Thoughts For The DNC

Mark Zuckerberg.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

How Facebook’s Political Unit Enables the Dark Art of Digital Propaganda

Some of unit’s clients stifle opposition, stoke extremism.

By 

Lauren Etter

Vernon Silver

, and 

Sarah Frier

 

Under fire for Facebook Inc.’s role as a platform for political propaganda, co-founder Mark Zuckerberg has punched back, saying his mission is above partisanship. “We hope to give all people a voice and create a platform for all ideas,” Zuckerberg wrote in September after President Donald Trump accused Facebook of bias.

Zuckerberg’s social network is a politically agnostic tool for its more than 2 billion users, he has said. But Facebook, it turns out, is no bystander in global politics. What he hasn’t said is that his company actively works with political parties and leaders including those who use the platform to stifle opposition—sometimes with the aid of “troll armies” that spread misinformation and extremist ideologies.

The initiative is run by a little-known Facebook global government and politics team that’s neutral in that it works with nearly anyone seeking or securing power. The unit is led from Washington by Katie Harbath, a former Republican digital strategist who worked on former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign. Since Facebook hired Harbath three years later, her team has traveled the globe helping political clients use the company’s powerful digital tools.

Katie Harbath.

Photographer: Kirk Irwin/Getty Images for Glamour

In some of the world’s biggest democracies—from India and Brazil to Germany and the U.K.—the unit’s employees have become de facto campaign workers. And once a candidate is elected, the company in some instances goes on to train government employees or provide technical assistance for live streams at official state events.

Even before Facebook was forced to explain its role in U.S. election meddling—portrayed by its executives as a largely passive affair involving Russian-funded ads—the company’s direct and growing role catering to political campaigns raised concerns inside the social media giant.

“It’s not Facebook’s job, in my opinion, to be so close to any election campaign,” said Elizabeth Linder, who started and ran the Facebook politics unit’s Europe, Middle East and Africa efforts until 2016. Linder had originally been excited about the company’s potential to be “extraordinarily useful for the world’s leaders—but also the global citizenry.” She said she decided to leave the company in part because she grew uncomfortable with what she saw as increased emphasis on electioneering and campaigns.

In the U.S., the unit embedded employees in Trump’s campaign. (Hillary Clinton’s camp declined a similar offer.) In India, the company helped develop the online presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who now has more Facebook followers than any other world leader. In the Philippines, it trained the campaign of Rodrigo Duterte, known for encouraging extrajudicial killings, in how to most effectively use the platform. And in Germany it helped the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party (AfD) win its first Bundestag seats, according to campaign staff.

Supporters of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party dressed in blue tights attend a campaign rally ahead of European parliamentary elections on May 23, 2014, in Berlin.

Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

By all accounts, Facebook has been an indispensable tool of civic engagement, with candidates and elected officials from mayor to prime minister using the platform to communicate directly with their constituents, and with grassroots groups like Black Lives Matter relying on it to organize. The company says it offers the same tools and services to all candidates and governments regardless of political affiliation, and even to civil society groups that may have a lesser voice. Facebook says it provides advice on how best to use its tools, not strategic advice about what to say.

“We’re proud to work with the thousands of elected officials around the world who use Facebook as a way to communicate directly with their constituents, interact with voters, and hear about the issues important in their community,” Harbath said in an emailed statement. 

She said the company is investing in artificial intelligence and other ways to better police hate speech and threats. “We take our responsibility to prevent abuse of our platform extremely seriously,” Harbath said. “We know there are ways we can do better, and are constantly working to improve.”

Power and social media converge by design at Facebook. The company has long worked to crush its smaller rival, Twitter, in a race to be the platform of choice for the world’s so-called influencers, whether politicians, cricket stars or Kardashians. Their posts will, in theory, draw followers to Facebook more frequently, resulting in higher traffic for advertisers and better data about what attracts users.

Politicians running for office can be lucrative ad buyers. For those who spend enough, Facebook offers customized services to help them build effective campaigns, the same way it would Unilever NV or Coca-Cola Co. ahead of a product launch.

While Facebook declined to give the size of its politics unit, one executive said it can expand to include hundreds during the peak of an election, drawing in people from the company’s legal, information security and policy teams.

At meetings with political campaigns, members of Harbath’s team sit alongside Facebook advertising sales staff who help monetize the often viral attention stirred up by elections and politics. They train politicians and leaders how to set up a campaign page and get it authenticated with a blue verification check mark, how to best use video to engage viewers and how to target ads to critical voting blocs.

Rodrigo Duterte.

Photographer: Mark R. Cristino/AFP/Getty Images

Once those candidates are elected, their relationship with Facebook can help extend the company’s reach into government in meaningful ways, such as being well positioned to push against regulations.

At the very least, the optics of directly aiding campaigns or those in power may create the impression among users that Facebook is taking sides. Its effort effectively helping the Scottish National Party to victory in 2015 is recounted as a “success story” on Facebook’s corporate website that lists business case studies, even though those who favor staying in the U.K. might see it otherwise. In April, Vietnamese officials bragged that Facebook would build a dedicated channel to prioritize takedown requests for content that offended authorities. The company generally routes requests from governments through a separate channel, and takes the content down if it violates community standards. If it violates local law, it’ll only be unavailable in the relevant country.  

“They’re too cozy with power,” said Mark Crispin Miller, a media and culture professor at New York University.

That problem is exacerbated when Facebook’s engine of democracy is deployed in an undemocratic fashion. A November report by Freedom House, a U.S.-based nonprofit that advocates for political and human rights, found that a growing number of countries are “manipulating social media to undermine democracy.” One aspect of that involves “patriotic trolling,” or the use of government-backed harassment and propaganda meant to control the narrative, silence dissidents and consolidate power.

Internally, Facebook executives are grappling with how to distinguish between what constitutes trolling harassment and protected political speech. Zuckerberg has long maintained the company doesn’t want to play censor, but Facebook has drawn some lines—banning Greece’s Golden Dawn, the ultranationalist party, for example. The company also often removes the most extreme content, from white nationalists in the U.S. and from the Islamic State, as well as content it catches violating its “community standards” on hate speech and violence. Not all such content gets caught.

In retrospect, the nexus of power and data at Facebook seems inevitable. In 2007, Facebook opened its first office in Washington. The presidential election the following year saw the rise of the world’s first “Facebook President” in Barack Obama, who with the platform’s help was able to reach millions of voters in the weeks before the election. The number of Facebook users surged around the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East around 2010 and 2011, demonstrating the broad power of the platform to influence democracy.

Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon at a rally in Glasgow in April 2015. 

Photographer: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

By the time Facebook named Harbath, the former Giuliani aide, to lead its global politics and government unit, elections were becoming major social-media attractions. They now rank alongside the Super Bowl and the Olympics in terms of events that draw blockbuster ad dollars and boost engagement.

Facebook began getting involved in electoral hotspots around the world. They went to Argentina in 2015, where now-President Mauricio Macri streamed campaign rallies live on Facebook and, once elected, announced his entire cabinet on the site, complete with emojis. The same year, Poland’s nationalist president, Andrzej Duda, became one of the first world leaders to livestream his inauguration on the social network. Even as Duda has overseen a crackdown on press freedom in the country, Facebook’s corporate website says the company was “integral” to his electoral success and that his page is “one of his office’s main communication channels.”

Facebook has embedded itself in some of the globe’s most controversial political movements while resisting transparency. Since 2011, it has asked the U.S. Federal Election Commission for blanket exemptions from political advertising disclosure rules that could have helped it avoid the current crisis over Russian ad spending ahead of the 2016 election, Bloomberg reported in October. After a Congressional inquiry into Russian election meddling, Facebook has pledged to be more transparent about ad buyers and said it’s open to regulation.

The company’s relationship with governments remains complicated. Facebook has come under fire in the European Union, including for the spread of Islamic extremism on its network. The company just issued its annual transparency report explaining that it will only provide user data to governments if that request is legally sufficient, and will push back in court if it’s not. Despite Facebook’s desire to eventually operate in China and Zuckerberg’s flirtation with the country’s leaders, it’s still unwilling to compromise as much as the government wants it to in order to enter.

Narendra Modi.

Photographer: Rob Stothard/Getty Images

India is arguably Facebook’s most important market, with the nation recently edging out the U.S. as the company’s biggest. The number of users there is growing twice as fast as in the U.S. And that doesn’t even count the 200 million people who use the company’s WhatsApp messaging service in India, more than anywhere else on the globe.

By the time of India’s 2014 elections, Facebook had for months been working with several campaigns. Modi, who belongs to the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, relied heavily on Facebook and WhatsApp to recruit volunteers who in turn spread his message on social media. Since his election, Modi’s Facebook followers have risen to 43 million, almost twice Trump’s count.

Within weeks of Modi’s election, Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg both visited the nation as it was rolling out a critical free internet service that the government later curbed. Harbath and her team have also traveled there, offering a series of workshops and sessions that have trained more than 6,000 government officials.

As Modi’s social media reach grew, his followers increasingly turned to Facebook and WhatsApp to target harassment campaigns against his political rivals. India has become a hotbed for fake news, with one hoax story this year that circulated on WhatsApp leading to two separate mob beatings resulting in seven deaths. The nation has also become an increasingly dangerous place for opposition parties and reporters. In the past year, several journalists critical of the ruling party have been killed. Hindu extremists who back Modi’s party have used social media to issue death threats against Muslims or critics of the government.

On the night of Sept. 5, a Honda motorcycle pulled in front of the Bengaluru home of Gauri Lankesh, an outspoken critic of Modi who had been targeted by patriotic trolls on Facebook and other social media. As the Indian journalist was unlocking her gate, three bullets struck her in the head and chest, killing her. No arrests have been made.

The final editorial Lankesh had written for her newspaper was titled “In the Age of False News.” In it, she lamented how misinformation and propaganda on social media were poisoning the political environment.

 

— With assistance by Benjamin Elgin

 

Facebook is spying for the US government more and worse...

Just don't use Facebook or let your friends or family use Facebook

Police officers stand on a closed West 42nd Street near the New York Port Authority Bus Terminal after reports of an explosion in New York City, New York, U.S., December 11, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Segar - RC15DE36EBA0

Hand over the data. (Reuters/Mike Segar)

SHARE
WRITTEN BY

 

Every year, Facebook gets tens of thousands of requests for data from governments worldwide, including search warrants, subpoenas, or calls to restrict certain kinds of content. According to a new report released by the company on Dec. 18, these requests are increasing.

In the US, the requests rose by 26% from the last six months of 2016 to the first six months of 2017, while globally, requests increased by about 21%. Since 2013, when the company first started providing data on government requests, the US number has been steadily rising—it has roughly tripled in a period of four years.

Facebook has also been more forthcoming. In the first six months of 2013, it granted the government—which includes the police—79% of requests (“some data was produced” in these cases, the company says); in the first six months of 2017, that share rose to 85%.

“We continue to carefully scrutinize each request we receive for account data — whether from an authority in the U.S., Europe, or elsewhere — to make sure it is legally sufficient,” Chris Sonderby, the company’s general counsel, wrote in a post. “If a request appears to be deficient or overly broad, we push back, and will fight in court, if necessary.”

Facebook also says that 57% of the requests they got from US law enforcement included a non-disclosure order that bans the company from telling the user that their data was requested. This type of secret request was up by a whopping 50% from the last six months of 2016, but it’s unclear why. Quartz reached out to Facebook for comment.

More than 1,800 requests were so-called “emergency disclosures,” which are granted to law enforcement on a case-by-case basis, and are a subject of some controversy. They include, for instance, requests to suspend someone’s account, as was the case with Korryn Gaines, a 23-year-old mother who was shot and killed by police in 2016, after she reportedly threatened officers with a weapon. She was broadcasting her confrontation on Facebook, and police asked the company to shut down her account, saying that other users were egging her on.

As Quartz reported, law enforcement says it is the best judge of such situations and would like to have greater control over access to digital evidence than they do now. Privacy activists would rather leave some discretion to the companies—but would also like to see more transparency in Facebook’s policies.