Facebook's Censorship Of Legit Activists Shows The Policing Of Propaganda Is Going To Be A Fucking Mess

from the everybody-loses dept

Earlier this week, Facebook announced that it had uncovered a new wave of disinformation attacks ahead of the 2018 elections. To hear Facebook tell it, the new attacks pretty closely mirror Russia's Internet Research Agency attacks during the 2016 election. As in, the culprits are trying to sow distrust and amplify partisan divisions on both sides of the aisle by creating fake organizations, fake people, fake news, and rockin' memes. How much that actually accomplishes is the matter of some debate, but it's also pretty clear we don't yet understand how deep this rabbit hole really goes.

According to Facebook, this latest attack on the nation's gullible shows signs of evolution from the more ham-fisted attacks seen during the 2016 election. And while there's no hard link to Russia yet, Facebook claims there are some connections between Russian Internet Research Agency "troll farm" accounts and this new wave of disinformation:

"For example they used VPNs and internet phone services, and paid third parties to run ads on their behalf. As we’ve told law enforcement and Congress, we still don’t have firm evidence to say with certainty who’s behind this effort. Some of the activity is consistent with what we saw from the IRA before and after the 2016 elections. And we’ve found evidence of some connections between these accounts and IRA accounts we disabled last year, which is covered below."

The problem, as Twitter, Facebook (and Mike, And Tim) have made abundantly clear, these companies are absolutely terrible at policing their own platforms, and simply crying out that they should "do something" without understanding what they're doing isn't likely to work. When these platforms do attempt to address hate speech or propaganda, they repeatedly do a terrible and inconsistent job of it. Said terribleness almost always results in over-reach and collateral damage.

For example, Facebook's response to the discovery of the latest disinformation attack involved taking down at least 32 pages and numerous profiles on Facebook pushing bullshit to partisans on both sides of the aisle. Said "inauthentic operators," as Facebook called them, included groups like "Aztlan Warriors," "Black Elevation," and "Mindful Being." Most of these groups and pages were indeed bogus efforts designed to stoke existing partisan tensions by amplifying many of the most annoying aspects of extreme partisans on both sides.

But in the process Facebook also shut down a group named "Resisters," which had been organizing a “No Unite the Right 2 - DC" counter-protest against a planned white supremacist rally scheduled in Washington DC on August 12. Needless to say, the legitimate activists weren't particularly pleased:

"However, activists who had worked with Resisters said the counterprotest they planned against a far-right rally was legitimate — and that Facebook was harming their ability to combat the rise of white supremacy. The event, called “No Unite the Right 2 DC” and promoted by Resisters along with other left-leaning groups, was collateral damage in Facebook’s battle against disinformation, they said.

Facebook has “delegitimized our whole event — and all the work that folks across the D.C. area have put a lot of time and effort into,” said Caleb-Michael Files, an organizer of the March to Confront White Supremacy, a group that was organized after the Charlottesville protests, and a co-host of the counterprotest event page."

Over at Facebook, one of the justifications for the removal of the page was that an account linked to the Russian IRA disinformation effort had been an administrator for the page for all of seven minutes:

"The IRA engaged with many legitimate Pages, so these leads sometimes turn up nothing. However, one of these leads did turn up something. One of the IRA accounts we disabled in 2017 shared a Facebook Event hosted by the “Resisters” Page. This Page also previously had an IRA account as one of its admins for only seven minutes. These discoveries helped us uncover the other inauthentic accounts we disabled today."

Taking down a whole, legitimate website because one IRA-linked account had admin rights for all of seven minutes seems shaky at best, and Facebook isn't clear on what additional evidence they relied on. The other problem is that Facebook notified all of the group's legitimate members about its move, undermining the effort as a whole. Facebook's blog post is also misleading, in that it suggests that these legitimate activists were somehow conned into participating in a counter-protest they would have been engaged with anyway:

"The Event – “No Unite the Right 2 – DC” – was scheduled to protest an August “Unite the Right” event in Washington. Inauthentic admins of the “Resisters” Page connected with admins from five legitimate Pages to co-host the event. These legitimate Pages unwittingly helped build interest in “No Unite Right 2 – DC” and posted information about transportation, materials, and locations so people could get to the protests."

The event is still scheduled, but the new Facebook group created in the wake of Facebook's actions has far fewer members, and it's unclear how many people who would have otherwise attended were scared off by what feels like over-reach.

It's a bit of a master class on the terrible position Facebook suddenly finds itself in and the need for transparency as we try to craft a solution. The Washington Post quotes somebody inside Facebook that notes the company debated whether or not the bans would harm legitimate activism, but ultimately decided that the harm to these groups from being potentially co-opted by hostile foreign intelligence efforts was worse than the potential censorship.

That was cold comfort to activists, who suddenly found their efforts to undermine white supremacy derailed due to no fault of their own:

“It’s an extremely dangerous situation for free speech when politicians are screaming at web platforms to ‘do something’ about a problem that is difficult to address,” she said. “Censoring an anti-Nazi protest was a particularly egregious example of collateral damage."

The problem here is there's no real consensus on a path forward. We don't honestly know how to combat this yet.

Modern disinformation efforts clearly amplify tensions and sow distrust, and, as intended (check out Adam Curtis' Hypernormalisation documentary when you have a few hours to kill some time), help contribute to the undermining of traditional media and traditional institutions, opening the door wider to future disinformation efforts. The impact isn't easily measurable, letting many dismiss the problem as over-hyped and unimportant. But if you've watched as conspiracy goes mainstream and often wanders comically close to White House policy, it should pretty clear there's a very fucking real problem here.

But Facebook and Twitter have both shown they're aggressively incompetent at regulating platforms or being transparent about such behavior. Congress can barely put its pants on in the morning. And despite some healthy debate for the better part of the year by journalists and academics alike, you'd be hard pressed to find anybody that currently has a solution to this particular problem. In part, because none of the solutions are easy, whether it involves shoring up critical thinking training in a country that consistently likes to underfund education, or reconfiguring systems to make spreading bullshit less profitable.

This new wave of disinformation and conspiracy is much like a bacterial infection, and it's going to take time for the culture and body politic to generate an immune response. In the interim, the learning process is going to be ugly as we feel out the best path forward. Whatever that path winds up looking like, hopefully it comes with notably less censorship and a whole lot more transparency.


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  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 3 Aug 2018 @ 12:34pm

    "the learning that precedes viable solutions is likely going to be decidedly ugly as we try to ferret out the best path forward"

    The platforms alone won't be able to solve the problem. We must take this into our hands as society with free speech in mind. The most important step and yet the one that won't yield fruition as fast as we need is educating the ones we can so they'll think critically, look for multiple, reliable sources and more importantly, take their time to read and understand stuff before forwarding instead of parroting tiny, easy to memorize headlines. One can hope, no?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Christenson, 3 Aug 2018 @ 3:31pm

      Re: Parts of the solution...

      You know, I keep seeing good reporters say things like
      "Full disclosure: they sent me a free sample" or
      "Full disclosure: My brother works for so and so".

      Given Techdirt's approach of "More speech is better", I don't think "taking down" BS posts is gonna do the job...

      But I do think enforced disclosure might help. What if those legit protestors had to disclose that they'd let a russian agent be an admin for a few minutes? You can't buy an anonymous political ad on TV, why not something analagous on the internet?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 3 Aug 2018 @ 6:38pm

        Re: Re: Parts of the solution...

        How are they to know? What if there's a typo and you invite the wrong account and then correct your mistake? Or what if a legitimate group has illegitimate individuals infiltrate for at least a limited time (though no one even knows know who they're really linked to)?

        One solution might be making some kinds of activity require disclosure and relation to actual national IDs; except the US has a major problem in that actual national IDs are resisted (instead of instead being far more stringent about when, and how they're used and regulating how they're stored).

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 4 Aug 2018 @ 8:32am

          Re: Re: Re: Parts of the solution...

          National id is a bad idea for many reasons and the potential benefit as you suggest would never materialize.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 4 Aug 2018 @ 9:02am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Parts of the solution...

            Nazi fuckers Taking ideas from the thirrd reicht for Americans so the new world order can close the book on this once great nation.. hmm. Also

            fuck facebook

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 4 Aug 2018 @ 8:30am

        Re: Re: Parts of the solution...

        "enforced disclosure"

        Not sure exactly what this means or implies - do you?
        Certainly, once in place it will be abused.

        What is a legit protester?

        You are suggesting the already shot down ID silliness is a good idea, perhaps you have not thought that thru to its obvious conclusion.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Aug 2018 @ 12:40pm

    Governments, by fighting a disinformation war on the Internet are giving themselves the excuse needed to establish tight controls over it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Russian Spy, 3 Aug 2018 @ 5:24pm

      Re:

      Exactly. Get the media to cry "Russians! Russians!! RUSSIANS!!!" often enough and loud enough (anyone here old enough to remember the McCarthy hearings/trials bullshit?) and pretty soon all our problems won't be our own damn-fool fault anymore.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Thad (profile), 3 Aug 2018 @ 7:16pm

        Re: Re:

        I'll bite.

        Aside from the fact that there are Senate hearings involving Russia, in what way is this similar to the McCarthy hearings?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        stderric (profile), 3 Aug 2018 @ 8:06pm

        Re: Re:

        (anyone here old enough to remember the McCarthy hearings/trials bullshit?)

        I don't think there's anyone alive who could make "Have you no common decency, sir!?" resonate with an audience of any significant size anymore, anyway... unless they end it with a "/sarc" tag (or the phrase "Goodnight from everyone here at Last Week Tonight").

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Aug 2018 @ 1:13pm

    reality bites

    ... we are all flooded with "Disinformation" (false information presented as truth) throughout our lives -- from advertising for diet/fitness products to financial advice to sacred words-of-God from established religions to mundane politicians spouting on TV campaign ads.

    No entity can or does censor/police our vast world of 'disinformation'. That's Life! We all deal with it as best we can ... but sources of valid information grow just as fast as sources of disinfomation, as technology advances.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 3 Aug 2018 @ 1:40pm

      Re: reality bites

      Luckily, religion no longer has the influence it did hundreds of years ago, and the TV ads that many of us grew up with are now really easy to avoid through various alternate distribution channels. Web ads, excepting those disguised as non-ads, are mostly caught by ad-blockers (do they fare well against Facebook ads?).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Paul Brinker, 3 Aug 2018 @ 1:59pm

    Scorched earth

    The people doing intentional bad information know or have a good idea how Facebook will react to their actions. The response to this is to mole your accounts deep into Facebook and mix them with real accounts such that it will end with scorched earth solutions to root out the bad actors.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Thad (profile), 3 Aug 2018 @ 2:20pm

      Re: Scorched earth

      Even if Facebook hadn't taken the pages down, all the IRA had to do was leak their involvement themselves and they still would have gotten what they wanted: an erosion of trust.

      It's an old KGB tactic; Russians were doing it decades before Facebook. Play both sides -- the pro-government and anti-government -- and then, once the protesters are done protesting, tell them, "By the way, the government was responsible for planning your anti-government protest the whole time." Bingo: you've spread paranoia, distrust, and cynicism, the protesters feel like they've been duped, and they're less likely to protest in the future.

      Hell, that's basically the plot of 1984.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    seedeevee (profile), 3 Aug 2018 @ 3:06pm

    Please stop with the bullshit "attack" phraseology

    You are making the World a more stupid place.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Thad (profile), 3 Aug 2018 @ 5:19pm

      Re: Please stop with the bullshit "attack" phraseology

      "Attack" is frequently used to describe things that aren't physical attacks. Verbal attacks, attack ads, cyberattacks, etc. Is there another word you'd prefer? "Campaign" would work, but "campaign" comes from warfare; it's got the same problem as "attack".

      And "world" is not a proper noun, just FYI.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    John Smith, 3 Aug 2018 @ 3:36pm

    Thank GOD I have these smart tech people to make sure the forces of evil don't manipulate me. I felt so defenseless before.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Russian Spy, 3 Aug 2018 @ 5:21pm

    Russians

    "Russians!
    Russians!!
    RUSSIANS!!!"
    -Jan Brady

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Sayonara Felicia-San (profile), 3 Aug 2018 @ 5:45pm

    OMG LAWD JESUS OF NAZARETH HALP ME!

    If only the Russians had bought facebook ads AGAINST universal healthcare, we might all have single payer by now!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Aug 2018 @ 8:05am

      Re: OMG LAWD JESUS OF NAZARETH HALP ME!

      Thank goodness!!! So-called Single Payer is a joke and would never work for a number of reasons.

      Health care is not a right!
      Going to school for years on in to become a doctor, only to make $60,000 makes zero sense. End up with even a larger Doctor shortage.

      I can go on and on.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Aug 2018 @ 5:55pm

    Re: body politic to generate an immune response

    It doesn't work that way.

    Let me tell you a little story:

    Once apon a time some guys invented a new technology that totally transformed the national economy. Over the years it became apparent that it commoditized civil rights. Some people started having a problem with this, and the state hemmed and hawed about what to do, but ultimately did nothing until it was too late.

    Now you tell me: Am I talking about the blackbirders of the late 1700's, or ad-tracking?

    It isn't about what the bad guys are saying. It is about the fact that they know exactly what to say to YOU. And that is entirely driven by the commercial surveillance economy.

    The Constitution is the foundation. The commercial surveillance products sector is a swamp, built on top of that foundation. There is no solid ground on which to build a legislative approach. The solution is as self evident now as it was then: Litigate under existing law. There are other messier solutions but litigation is the best.

    With complex problems, you have to understand them before you can fix them. The DNC/RNC alliance operates on fundamentalist views that serve no one, but the oligarchy. Because neither party is tolerant of reason.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Aug 2018 @ 3:46am

    Moderation of large platforms is a mug's game

    Really I think that once a social website gets to be in the top 100s engaging in active moderation becomes a losing game. No matter what they do they'll be unable to keep everyone happy in a significant way and result in crap like both liberals an conservatives feeling that Facebook is biased against them. Even user moderation isn't a cure-all as demonstrated by Slashdot being brigaded into utter uselessness.

    I suspect that improved critical thinking teaching for everyone could solve it best but that would be a glacially slow game as it would only really be applied in schools and probably not that well.

    Hypercitation of sources could e useful as an approach to fact checking but that they themselves can be poisoned with misinformation and of course can fail with up to the minute and chaotic emerging situation. There are a lot of 'second gunmen' from echoes during shootings in a panicked situation or just seeing the gun of police responding and assuming they are another shooter - hiding in response to anyone unknown with a gun in a situation like that is a pretty sensible decision (heck even if you recognize them as police it is a good idea to stay out of the way in case it turns into a firefight) but it isn't accurate.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Aug 2018 @ 8:41am

    When people are getting their "news" through FB there is a problem. Not necessarily with FB, but from the people who swallow whole all the BS that gets posted there. Not just politics but other areas too.

    I don't have a FB account or any other "social media" account. Sadly the GF does. Some of the things that come out of her mouth just make me say WTF? Where did you hear THAT? "Well it was on <insert social media here>"

    It's a lot of work to try and get the real story anymore. I haven't been able to find a site that doesn't spin the news so I read the same item as reported by sites that are both left and right and try to deduce what the real story is about.

    Even the almighty Zuck or Congress can't fix stupid. And a lot of the things that get posted there are just that.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Aug 2018 @ 8:08am

      Re:

      Many people think that Facebook is the Internet when it's a TINY part of the internet and they're really missing out on everything else.

      While I have a Facebook account, I limit myself to minutes 1 or 2 days a month at most. I'm not on Twitter, as I just don't care what strangers are doing at all times of the day. I don't care if they're a Celeb.

      I get my info from a number of places.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 4 Aug 2018 @ 12:02pm

    Dog, forgive us for aour short sighted evaluations..

    "As in, the culprits are trying to sow distrust and amplify partisan divisions on both sides of the aisle by creating fake organizations, fake people, fake news, and rockin' memes. "

    Ummm..
    This has been happening since I was young. 3rd parties that Loved 1 side or the other, would create THEIR OWN adverts to broadcast..The 2 main parties arnt SUPPOSED TO..
    Truth, lies, MUD, has been going back and forth FOR YEARS..
    Why does the internet MEAN anything in this?

    WITH OR WITHOUT THEM..if we remove them from our history, we are CLEANING HISTORY, BLEACHING IT..removing Proof that it happened. Making the Votes on a Bill, PRIVATE/SECURITY RATED is another part of this. Finding out who was the IDIOT TO VOTED for certain laws..gets to be very hard sometimes.

    Alot of the idiocy that happens on the hill, tends to be them TRYING to hide stuff. Or fix something so it has no affect, AFTER the fact.

    Its no worse then the OTHER corp adverts that Promise everything, IF'(please read the fine print on the back as well as every other form listed to find out NOTHING IS FREE)

    Its as bad as TRUTH IN ADVERTS LAWS in this country.
    But consider that IT WAS an advert, and you saw it.. Was/is it true or not. Except for theh '*' mark hidden in the advert, WE HAVE A HARD TIME TRYING TO FIGURE IT OUT/..

    Anyone ever read the USURY laws?? They only work, IF' you dont sign a contract.. WHICH is funny as hell.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ECA (profile), 4 Aug 2018 @ 12:03pm

      Re: Dog, forgive us for aour short sighted evaluations..

      Let me say it this way..

      HOW do you censor politics??
      BAN THEM ALL...until they can PROVE ANYTHING they say, CUT them all off.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    tom (profile), 5 Aug 2018 @ 5:10am

    One person's BS report is the next person's legitimate news.

    When the US is busy trying to incite government and policy change in Iran and other countries and has been for decades, it is hard to claim indignant concern when an outside power returns the favor.

    When the average website tries to run many 3rd party scripts just to load, it will be near impossible to fully figure out what all is being loaded or attempted to load. Made worse when many of those scripts attempt to load still more. And this is for so called legitimate sites.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Aug 2018 @ 2:02pm

    You can please some of the people some of the time
    But you cant please all of the people all of the time .
    So People just mind your own shit and don't worry about
    other peoples shit and you will live a lot more happier life
    because really your shit does stink even if you cant smell it

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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