Facebook and the 2016 U.S. election

Facebook has revealed that US$100,000 was spent on 3,000 adverts that appear to have come from a Russian operation that intended to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The revelation comes as the social media giant responds to persistent criticism that it failed to counter the use of its platform to spread misinformation and inflammatory rhetoric that might have influenced the presidential race.

What’s happened?

  • In an article, Facebook’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, wrote that a network of 470 “inauthentic” accounts that “likely operated out of Russia” were responsible for 3,000 ads.
  • Most of the ads did not mention a specific politician, but were aimed at “amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights,” Stamos wrote.

What’s the controversy?

  • The news sheds some light on two of the most hotly-debated elements of last year’s presidential race: the role of “fake news” and the influence of the Russian government.
  • According to the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of U.S. voters get their news through Facebook and this was exploited in the election build-up by people posting inflammatory material, either for profit or to influence the debate.
  • Days after the election result, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg dismissed the idea that Facebook’s role as a platform for the spread of fake news had any influence on the election. He previously emphasized that Facebook is a tech company and had no intention of becoming a media company with an editorial purview.
  • However, a week later he changed his tune, writing in a Facebook status that his company was committed to tackling the spread of misinformation.

Has Facebook done anything wrong?

  • In response to public criticism, Facebook has officially affirmed its commitment over the past year to preventing the spread of fake news.
  • In April, the company announced a broad review of how articles are shared and how users can verify information including partnering with fact-checking organizations in different countries.
  • In late August, Facebook announced that pages that share stories that are flagged as false will be barred from buying ads. The company said this was part of an effort to “disrupt the economic incentives” behind producing and spreading inflammatory false content.
  • The September revelation is the most concrete example yet that Facebook was used as part of a Kremlin-led effort to influence the election.
  • However, the US$100,000 purportedly spent on ads by Russia is dwarfed by total political ad spending, which media research group Borrell Associates estimated at US$9.8 billion for 2016.
  • Facebook says that it has provided further information to Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the U.S. Department of Justice probe into Russian influence in the election.
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