Facebook responds to new scrutiny with PR push

Facebook responds to new scrutiny with PR push
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Facebook is on a public relations blitz amid scrutiny from investigators about how the platform was used during the 2016 presidential campaign and criticism from researchers about how the site has upended traditional politics.

The imaging push comes after the company revealed last month that it believes accounts linked to Russia purchased 3,000 Facebook ads meant to influence the 2016 election.

Facebook admitted that the ads, which cost $100,000, were likely seen by 10 million people in the U.S.

Now Facebook is working to assuage critics and regulators who worry about its unchecked ability to influence elections.

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This week it took out full-page ads in multiple major newspapers in the U.S., promising to protect “our community from election interference.”

The company has also promised to work closely with congressional investigators and committed to a number of reforms to bring more transparency to its political advertising model, bringing the social giant closer to the disclosure rules that govern political ad purchases on traditional media outlets.

Researchers say that political advertisements are just one way that actors can use the platform to spread misinformation, push political agendas and undermine democratic processes.

"We're seeing their very public grappling with acknowledging themselves as a media platform and a media company," said Shannon McGregor, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah.

As part of its effort preserve the integrity of elections, Facebook has promised to hire 1,000 people to review ad content, build out its civic engagement tools and partner with journalists and elections officials.

“It is a new challenge for internet communities to deal with nation states attempting to subvert elections,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said last month in a broadcast on his site addressing the controversy. “But if that's what we must do, we are committed to rising to the occasion.”

Last week, Facebook handed over to Congress the 3,000 ads it had identified as being bought by the Internet Research Agency, an organization suspected of being a Russian “troll farm.”

It also said last week that it would send a representative to testify in a pair of intelligence hearings scheduled for Nov. 1, the same day Facebook will brief investors on its quarterly earnings report.

For months, the internet giant has been publicly addressing criticisms of its size, reach and practices in ways that it never has before.

"These technology firms over the course of their existence have been working to make themselves as legitimate sources of public opinion data, of access to individuals,” McGregor said of Facebook, Google and Twitter, all of which have been asked to testify by House and Senate intelligence officials.

“These revelations harm that effort, because they weren't doing the due diligence to understand what was going into these ads and who was paying for them."

Siva Vaidhyanathan, a researcher at the University of Virginia, said that while Facebook and other internet companies are used to tough pressure from regulators in Europe, the degree of pressure that the platform is feeling in the U.S. is unprecedented.

"Any time that the Senate Intelligence Committee demands that you testify, demands data from you, you better take it seriously,” said Vaidhyanathan, who’s writing a book about Facebook.

“Clearly, Facebook is in new territory. It has never had to deal with this level of public scrutiny, journalistic scrutiny and federal scrutiny in the United States."

Vaidhyanathan said that any effort to tackle anti-democratic threats that Facebook’s platform poses will have to involve more than political advertising disclosures.

Jonathan Albright, the research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, conducted an analysis of six Facebook pages that had purchased some of the ads that were handed over to Congress this week. Albright found that in addition to the ads, which Facebook said were seen by 10 million Americans, the accounts had also been reaching millions of people “organically” through posts that had generated interactions with users.

According to his research, those posts had 19.1 million interactions, which involves users commenting on, favoriting or sharing them.

“The primary push to influence wasn’t necessarily through paid advertising,” Albright told the Washington Post last week. “The best way to understand this from a strategic perspective is organic reach.”

Despite Facebook’s promised reforms, the company’s biggest critics say it’s not enough.

Vaidhyanathan says that the platform’s algorithms give a boost to content that resonates with users emotionally, making it difficult for sincere political discourse to take place on the site.

"We're all in the process of finding out that the problems at Facebook are root-deep,” Vaidhyanathan said. “The threats that Facebook presents to democracy around the world are not matters of poor engineering or simple tweaks or bugs in the system. The problem with Facebook is Facebook."

"The things that are going to go the farthest, that make the deepest impression, on Facebook are going to be puppies and babies and hate speech," he added.