Facebook appears Russia’s biggest useful idiot in Vladimir Putin’s bold war

The Promotion Fix is a​n ​exclusive biweekly column for The Drum from Samuel Scott, a global keynote marketing speaker who is a former journalist, newspaper editor, and director of marketing and communications in the high-tech industry. Follow him @samueljscott.

Mark Zuckerberg & Vladimir Putin

Well, Mark, you moved fast and broke things. Now, how are you going to fix it?

On Friday, Robert Mueller, the special counsel who is investigating the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election that unexpectedly resulted in President Donald Trump, announced that a grand jury had indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian firms for charges including conspiracy to defraud the United States.

The BBC has the full text of the indictment, which is unprecedented in its identification of social media networks -- primarily Facebook and Instagram -- as the primary mediums involved and its detailed explanation of how they were reportedly used.

I have gone through the indictment and will list the significant parts here:

“The ‘organization's’ strategy included interfering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, with the stated goal of ‘spread[ing] distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general”

“This project focused on the U.S. population and conducted operations on social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. By approximately July 2016, more than eighty ‘organization’ employees were assigned”

“Defendants and their co-conspirators, through fraud and deceit, created hundreds of social media accounts and used them to develop certain fictitious U.S. personas into ‘leader[s] of public opinion’ in the United States”

“Defendants and their co-conspirators also created thematic group pages on social media sites, particularly on the social media platforms Facebook and Instagram… By 2016, the size of many ‘organization’-controlled groups had grown to hundreds of thousands of online followers”

“Defendants and their co-conspirators began to purchase advertisements on online social media sites to promote ‘organization’-controlled social media groups, spending thousands of U.S. dollars every month”

“Defendants and their co-conspirators also created and controlled numerous Twitter accounts designed to appear as if U.S. personas or groups controlled them”

“Defendants and their co-conspirators tracked the performance of content they posted over social media. They tracked the size of the online U.S. audiences reached through posts, different types of engagement with the posts (such as likes, comments, and reports), changes in audience size, and other metrics”

“Defendants and their co-conspirators connected from Russia to the U.S.-based infrastructure by way of these VPNs and conducted activity inside the United States—including accessing online social media accounts, opening new accounts, and communicating with real U.S. persons—while masking the Russian origin and control of the activity”

“Defendants and their co-conspirators also registered and controlled hundreds of web-based email accounts hosted by U.S. email providers under false names so as to appear to be U.S persons and groups. From these accounts, Defendants and their co-conspirators registered or linked to online social media accounts in order to monitor them”

“Defendants and their co-conspirators also used, possessed, and transferred, without lawful authority, the social security numbers and dates of birth of real U.S. persons without those persons' knowledge or consent. Using these means of identification, Defendants and their co-conspirators opened accounts at PayPal, a digital payment service provider; created false means of identification, including fake drivers' licenses; and posted on ‘organization’-controlled social media accounts using the identities of these U.S. victims”

“Defendants and their co-conspirators used their fictitious online personas to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. They engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump”

“Defendants and their co-conspirators internally circulated an outline of themes for future content to be posted to ‘organization’-controlled social media accounts. Specialists were instructed to post content that focused on ‘politics in the USA’ and to ‘use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump—we support them)’”

“Defendants and their co-conspirators also established additional online social media accounts dedicated to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, including the Twitter account ‘March for Trump’ and Facebook accounts ‘Clinton Fraudation’ and ‘Trumpsters United’”

“Defendants and their co-conspirators used the ‘organization’-controlled Instagram account ‘Woke Blacks’ to post the following message: ‘[A] particular hpe and hatred for Trump is misleading the people and forcing Blacks to vote Killary. We cannot resort to the lesser of two devils. Then we'd surely be better off without voting at all’”

“Defendants and their co-conspirators also began to promote allegations of voter fraud by the Democratic Party through their fictitious U.S. personas and groups on social media. Defendants and their co-conspirators purchased advertisements on Facebook to further promote the allegations”

“Defendants and their co-conspirators, while concealing their Russian identities and organization affiliation through false personas, began to produce, purchase, and post adverts on U.S. social media and other online sites expressly advocating for the election of then-candidate Trump or expressly opposing Clinton”

“Defendants and their co-conspirators established various Russian bank accounts and credit cards, often registered in the names of fictitious U.S. personas created and used by the ‘organization’ on social media. Defendants and their co-conspirators also paid for other political advertisements using PayPal accounts”

“Defendants and their co-conspirators organization and coordinated political rallies in the United States… Defendants and their co-conspirators promoted the events through public posts on their false U.S. persona social media accounts. In addition, Defendants and their co-conspirators contacted administrators of large social media groups focused on U.S. politics and requested that they advertise the rallies”

“Defendants and their co-conspirators purchased advertisements on Facebook and Instagram to promote the "Florida Goes Trump" rallies”

“Defendants and their co-conspirators deleted and destroyed data, including emails, social media accounts, and other evidence of their activities.”

In summary, it is a perfect example of a well-executed digital marketing campaign -- albeit one for a nefarious purpose.

A disruption of democracy

The tech industry believes it is good to “disrupt” the world -- it is even the name of the conferences held by TechCrunch -- because causing massive global unrest and social anxiety is supposedly commendable. But it is much easier to destroy something than build something.

As a result, that world has never understood the lesson of Jurassic Park. They have been so preoccupied with whether they could that they did not think if they should. The young geeks obsess over new technologies but are too naive to think about the large-scale, societal implications. The middle-aged venture capitalists want to be Scrooge McDuck and dive into the new piles of money that they are adding to their existing piles of money.

To them, it’s all a game. Meanwhile, the world is burning. The Russian government, in my opinion, has reportedly been manufacturing internal strife and fragmentation to destabilize other countries in pursuit of its geopolitical objectives. Brexit as well as Spain and Catalonia have been the most successful examples besides the 2016 US presidential election. Social media -- mainly through Facebook and Instagram -- have been the methods.

Facebook conceded in October that at least 470 fake accounts used by the pro-Russian troll factory Internet Research Agency, one of the indicted companies, promoted material designed to interfere with last year’s US presidential election. The social network stated that up to 126m Americans could have been exposed to the propaganda. (That is 50% of the 2016 voting-age population of the country.)

In just one example, Russia, according the chairman of the US Senate Intelligence Committee, invented an urgent cause around the ‘Islamization of Texas’ and used fake Facebook pages to encourage people from ‘both sides to battle in the streets and create division between real Americans.’ Here is more: reported Russian Facebook ads showed, among others, Jesus battling a Hillary Clinton who looks like a devil.

To put it simply: Brad Parscale, the digital director for Trump’s presidential campaign, has said Facebook was the social platform that was most responsible for his surprise election victory.

While Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch testified in November at US Congressional hearings alongside representatives of Google and Twitter on Russian election interference, Mark Zuckerberg and the company’s investors were probably lighting cigars with $100 bills back at their offices. The social network announced a 47% increase in quarterly revenue to $10.1bn at around the same time as the hearings.

Facebook’s earnings announcement showed that the company can be successful despite -- or perhaps with the help of money from -- the alleged Russian manipulation and interference in western politics.

Facebook started with Zuckerberg’s famous motto: ‘Move fast and break things.’ But anyone who encourages people to destroy things with such reckless disregard is an immature brat at best or a dangerous psychopath at worst.

Well, Mark, congratulations. You did break something: democracy. I am sure that you did not mean to empower Russia’s reported Soviet-style active measures and dezinformatsiya campaigns to help to make Donald Trump the President of the United States. But your platform helped to do exactly that.

Russia pulled down the pants of the social media and tech industries -- to the detriment of the entire western world. I wonder how social media startups and VCs feel today when they get a taste of their own medicine by someone else who moved fast and broke things. Maybe Mark Zuckerberg and Vladimir Putin should co-present at the next TechCrunch Disrupt.

Even more, the very assumptions that underpin how high-tech startups should operate are what have led us to this point.

When I was once a reporter for a weekly newspaper in Boston, the entire editorial and advertising staff would spend Thursday afternoons going through the articles and ads in the following day’s paper. We would check for typos, whether ads were inappropriately placed next to related stories, and whether the ads themselves contained anything improper. The advertising team knew exactly who had bought every single advertisement.

But the rule of thumb in the high-tech world is to automate as much as possible because human beings are expensive. Human quality control is always important, but it is viewed as an unnecessary cost center for startups that want to grow quickly. (Unless you are a big brand with a lot of money to spend, it is virtually impossible for an advertiser to contact a human being at Facebook.)

Instead, companies such as Facebook that are dominated by software engineers have always put blind faith in data and algorithms even though data can always be hacked and algorithms can always be manipulated. Now, we see where that road lies. As a character in a 2017 episode of the US satirical cartoon South Park stated, Zuckerberg created a platform that provides a monetary incentive for people -- or governments -- to spread misinformation.

The Facebook founder seems to have been so obsessed with creating a global, self-service direct marketing platform that he never thought about how social media would influence global politics as well as human relationships and society as a whole. Is it any wonder that Facebook’s early employees are now ashamed of what they built and fear a social media dystopia while current employees are embarrassed to say where they work?

So, where do we stand today? Facebook has been like a new, reckless teenage driver who trades seats with a friend when the police pull him over. The platform wants all of the privileges but none of the associated responsibilities. Facebook reportedly fought for years against the application of US political advertising disclosure rules that currently apply to traditional media and would have exposed the fake Russian ads. The company allegedly deleted Russian data before researchers could analyze it further.

What Facebook should do

In my opinion, Friday’s indictments will be taught in the future as the single largest PR disaster in business history. Facebook has one chance to survive: tell the truth, tell the complete truth, release all of the Russian advertisements and related data, and do it quickly.

But there is more that the company should do.

First, Facebook should be held to the same political advertising standards as traditional media in the US -- as well as in every other country that has similar regulations. If the company were to adopt the rules voluntarily, it would be the beginning of a mea culpa and a move in good faith. Facebook announced in October that it will require full transparency, but it will be the follow-through and not the statement that matters. We will see. For its part, Google says it ‘strongly supports’ full disclosure in political ads.

Second, Facebook -- as well as Amazon, Google, and Taboola -- should cut off the far-right and fake news publication Breitbart News.

Third, Facebook should drop the absurd pretense that COO Sheryl Sandberg has been dutifully peddling: that the platform is not a media company. As Jeff John Roberts succinctly pointed out in Fortune, Facebook has an interest in not being deemed as a media company and not dealing with the regulatory responsibilities and legal liabilities that would follow.

The operational differences are important to understand. News outlets want shared articles first to be accurate; whether they receive a lot of engagement comes second. Facebook wants shared articles first to receive engagement; whether they are accurate comes second. Facebook wants to keep prioritizing the latter, but the platform’s level of influence should mandate that it do the former.

New York University marketing professor Scott Galloway went into more detail in a podcast. Elsewhere, he discussed how this whole debacle could mean the end for the social media platform. If Facebook were to agree to be classified as a media company and sacrifice a little of the company’s immense revenues for the benefit of the world, it would also help to improve the platform’s viability. After all, social media is essentially a public good when everyone including the President of the United States uses it to communicate.

In an October 2017 experiment, WordStream founder and MobileMonkey CEO Larry Kim found that an hour of work and a $50 spend on Facebook can still create a massive fake news operation.

Facebook could certainly employ an army of human beings at good salaries to review and stop such activity as I did at the weekly newspaper years ago, but that would put a dent -- no matter how small -- in the company’s profit growth. And the rule for startups always seems to be ‘growth at any cost.’ Moving fast and breaking things needs to be done as cheaply as possible.

At press time, the most significant response from Facebook has been this Twitter thread by Rob Goldman, the company’s VP of advertising.

“Very excited to see the Mueller indictment today,” he wrote in an opening tweet. “We shared Russian ads with Congress, Mueller and the American people to help the public understand how the Russians abused our system. Still, there are key facts about the Russian actions that are still not well understood.”

In a surprising twist in an unprecedented news story, Omnicom Media Group Executive Vice Chairman Mainardo de Nardis, who is presumably a purchaser of a large amount of Facebook advertising, publicly denounced Goldman.

“You really are not in a position to preach and your astonishing tweets have created confusion and anger,” de Nardis wrote. “Enough damage done over the past two+ years. In the absence of real actions silence would be appreciated.”

Zuckerberg himself has been on a charm offensive throughout the United States, but it has not helped his public likability for one simple reason: the problem is not the marketing, the problem is the Frankenstein product. No amount of disruption can help that anymore.

The saddest part of this whole affair -- at least so far -- has been this tweet by Evan McMullin, a 2016 presidential candidate and former Republican congressman:

“Did Moscow’s interference impact our election? They chose a candidate and bought ads to support him and attack opponents. They recruited activists to amplify his message. They organized rallies. They focused on swing states. They did what all campaigns do to win votes.

So, yes.”

The Promotion Fix is an exclusive biweekly column for The Drum contributed by global marketing and technology keynote speaker Samuel Scott, a former journalist, consultant, and director of marketing in the high-tech industry. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.

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