UK Hosts Theatrical Facebook Hearings On 'Fake News'... Undermined By Creating Fake News Itself

from the good-for-show,-not-good-for-truth dept

As you may have heard, the UK Parliament put on quite a show on Tuesday in what it claimed was an attempt to go after Facebook for its "fake news" problem. Of course, in the process, the hearings themselves created some fake news that undermined the entire point. To be clear, upfront, Facebook does have many issues that should be taken seriously. But this hearing did not get at those, and actually showed how, when political grandstanding is the focus, it's quite easy to create "fake news" in the process. Still, boy, was that hearing theatrical. It was apparently the first time since 1933 that the UK Parliament had representatives from other countries participate in a hearing, and so there were nine other countries present, including Canada, France, Belgium, Brazil, Ireland, Latvia, Argentina and Singapore. On top of that, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made the bad decision of refusing to participate in the hearings, giving the Committee the opportunity for this classic photo op:

Facebook's VP of policy, Richard Allan appeared instead, and despite even him admitting that it didn't look great that Zuckerberg wasn't in attendance, he is actually someone who would probably be better positioned to answer actual substantive questions about Facebook's policies in these areas.

But that would only matter if the inquisitors were interested in discussing substantive policy matters. And it did not appear they did. They were there for the grandstanding, repeatedly blaming Facebook for reflecting back human nature and all its foibles. There were questions about what Facebook was doing to protect democracy -- which I don't think is actually Facebook's job (indeed, seems like that's the government's job, no?). But, of course, the main highlight of the show was the organizer of the hearing, MP Damian Collins, who you'll recall seized a bunch of documents, under questionable circumstances, from a US business exec who was visiting the UK.

The "documents" were supposed to be the star of the show, and Collins dropped the apparent big bombshell during the hearing: Facebook had, he claimed, actually been alerted to an attempt by Russian's to mess with the site all the way back in October of 2014. As summarized by Wired:

Collins cut right to the heart of the documents during the hearing. In October of 2014, he said, a Facebook engineer notified the company that entities with Russian IP addresses had been using a Pinterest API to pull out three billion data points a day from the Facebook friends API. Collins wanted to know what happened after that information was brought forward.

"Was that reported or was it kept, as so often seems to be the case, kept within the family?" he asked.

Ooooh. Intrigue.

Except... it was bullshit. Facebook revealed the redacted emails in question and it showed that while an engineer had initially raised concerns that it appeared that Russian IP addresses were using the Pinterest API access to get lots of data, further investigation showed that he was wrong. The initial email says that the person is seeing calls from "Russian IPs" and is having the Site Integrity team investigate, though it's quickly followed up with a note that "those might not have been Russian IPs after all, we are digging."

Then, on the very same day -- indeed, just a little over two hours after the initial alarm of Russian IPs -- the person emails that it was a false alarm.

If you can't see that, it says:

Ok, thinks are not as bad as they seemed, apologies for the trash. There was a series of unfortunate coincidences that made me think the worse.

1/ We verified that the endpoint has not been "leaked" and calls seem to be coming all from Pinterest servers.
2/ We verified that the volume of calls per day is actually around 6M successful and 40M failed due to invalid access.

In short, it wasn't 3 billion data points and it wasn't Russia. Also, it wasn't abuse of the system. And yet, the way Collins raised the issue, he suggested that Facebook was aware that Russians had abused the API to access 3 billion data points and then kept it secret. In other words, Collins' explanation of what happened was 100% incorrect and misleading. It was misinformation. Or, as some like to call it: fake news.

And while it will not be, this should be the lesson that the folks who held this hearing should learn: there are all sorts of ways to make incorrect claims. Some of them on purpose. Some of them by accident. Some of them because of confirmation bias of what you want to be true. And expecting Facebook to magically understand what is what... is insanity.

So, not that MP Damian Collins will respond to me (perhaps I should set up a dramatic photoshoot of an empty chair with his nameplate), but I'm wondering. Does he think Facebook should block all the stories reporting on his false claim about them supposedly "hiding" news of Russians abusing the API to extract 3 billion data points? Or would that, you know, be crazy?

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Filed Under: api, damian collins, disinformation, fake news, grandstanding, interference, mark zuckerberg, richard allan, russia, uk
Companies: facebook

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  1. identicon
    I.T. Guy, 28 Nov 2018 @ 10:15am

    Look at them all there... with idiotic looks on their faces. I am pretty sure they knew beforehand that Mark would not be there. Why set a place for him? They look like a bunch of children sitting there going nah nah Mark, nah nah.

    Can you say... Witch hunt?

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