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How the Mueller report indicts social networks

One American’s open web is a dictator’s disinformation playground

Attorney General William Barr Holds Press Conference To Discuss Release Of Mueller Report
U.S. Attorney General William Barr speaks about the release of the redacted version of the Mueller report at the Department of Justice this week.
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

In many ways, our cultural reckoning over social networks and the internet in general began at the end of 2016. Russia had waged information warfare against the United States during our presidential election, and Donald Trump won a surprising victory over Hillary Clinton. Much of that warfare took place on our social platforms, and while we will never be able to quantify their precise effect on the outcome, a forensic analysis of the election by one of our foremost political scientists concluded that Russia very likely delivered a victory to Trump.

Partisan rancor has prevented a serious investigation of Russian interference from taking place at the Congressional level. And so the world has waited for the next-best thing: the arrival of Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Of course, much of the anticipation stemmed from the question of whether the special counsel would find that the president had obstructed justice or committed other crimes before or after taking office. But there have also been questions about the scope of Russian’s campaign and how effectively it exploited Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other sites.

Today, the report arrived. It neither accused the president of committing crimes or exonerated him, though some analysts suggest that Mueller may have left Trump open to prosecution after he leaves office. Its account of Russian interference on Facebook, Twitter et al had largely been told in the special counsel’s previous indictments of Russian agents. But if the report doesn’t offer any big surprises, it once again reminds us of how vulnerable they were — and, perhaps, still are.

Ryan Broderick breaks down some of the numbers in BuzzFeed:

At first, the IRA focused its activity on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Later Tumblr and Instagram accounts were created. In the beginning, Russian trolls were only manning fake individual accounts. By 2015, however, they began creating larger groups and pages. Finally, they attempted to flex their network effect to hold real-life rallies.

According to Mueller’s report, the Facebook Groups were particularly popular. By the time Facebook deactivated them in 2017, the Russia-controlled group “United Muslims of America” had over 300,000 followers, the “Don’t Shoot Us” group had over 250,000 followers, the “Being Patriotic” Facebook group had over 200,000 followers, and the “Secured Borders” Facebook group had over 130,000 followers.

To the extent that these methods were successful, it was because they played on real social tensions here in the United States. But the Mueller report shows us once again how determined Russians were to amplify those divisions, while flogging Trump’s candidacy relentlessly — and demonizing Clinton’s. (The report also has new details about how Russia hacked the email servers of the Democratic National Committee and and the Clinton campaign, Zack Whittaker reports.)

There are few new grand conclusions to be drawn from the report. Instead there is a reminder that creating open web platforms rooted in America’s free-speech traditions, however a noble cause, has created a massive attack surfaces for authoritarians and dictators. Trending algorithms were easily gamed; inflammatory posts and misinformation got wider distribution than the truth; and the decline of democracy accelerated around the world.

And even if it’s too much to lay all that at the feet of social networks — the decline of democracy does predate them — it never stops surprising me how useful they remain to the governments that would seek to end democracy altogether.

Democracy

Facebook bans far-right groups including BNP, EDL and Britain First

Good. From Alex Hern:

Years after the company first dismissed fears it was empowering extremists, Facebook has permanently banned a number of far-right organisations and individuals including the British National party (BNP), the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First .

The ban, which came into effect at midday on Thursday, extends beyond the groups and individuals specifically cited as hate organisations: posts and other content that “expresses praise or support” for them will also be banned, as will users who coordinate support for the groups.

Facebook teams with right-wing Daily Caller in fact-checking program

Sam Levin reports that Facebook has chosen an outlet affiliated with the hyper-partisan Daily Caller as a fact-checking partner:

Check Your Fact is billed as the “fact-check department” of the Daily Caller, and the site says it is “non-partisan” and “loyal to neither people nor parties”. It has dedicated reporters rating content as true and false and says it is a for-profit subsidiary of the Daily Caller Inc, of which Carlson is a majority owner. […]

On Wednesday, Facebook’s factchecking initiative also brought on Science Feedback, a not-for-profit organization that reviews news coverage on a range of subjects, including health and climate change.

Far-Right Germans Are Using WhatsApp To Share Nazi Propaganda Stickers

Hey, that’s illegal in Germany:

In nine WhatsApp groups that BuzzFeed News has observed since October, tens of thousands of messages have been sent among its far-right participants. Among them have been symbols glorifying the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler, deeply anti-Semitic images created using WhatsApp’s “sticker” function, and messages seeking to incite violence and threats against leftists or refugees. […]

German media lawyer Christian Solmecke told BuzzFeed News that users who send forbidden images in a private chat on WhatsApp to only one other person or a few people they know in closed WhatsApp groups won’t be punished by the authorities. “But if the image is sent to a WhatsApp group with many members, depending on the size of the group, it may quickly become a criminal offense,” he added, as it then becomes an “uncontrolled amount of participants” under German law.

How The BJP Automated Political Propaganda On WhatsApp

Gopal Sathe reports that India’s ruling party has hired a firm to blast out propaganda on WhatsApp:

According to a current Sarv employee, the company maintains a huge cache of mobile SIM cards and sends the messages through multiple registered numbers.

As WhatsApp restricts the number of participants per group, each number is used to set up multiple groups, according to screenshots shared with HuffPost India. He also claimed that it has systems in place to beat WhatsApp’s automated checks (mostly).

In the 2020 Race, What Is the Value of Social Media Stardom?

My Twitter feed has a lot to say about Pete Buttigieg and Andrew Yang, but other Democrats are raising more money. Issie Lapowsky reports that there is some connection between popularity on Twitter and at the polls, but it’s easy to overstate.

A cursory comparison between candidates’ overall funding and their popularity online would seem to suggest that viral success on Twitter is a weak proxy for the health of a campaign overall. That is, with the exception of Senator Kamala Harris, who excels at both.

By comparison, popularity on Facebook hews a bit more closely, though still not exactly, to the fund-raising stats. Facebook also has a much larger user base than Twitter.

TikTok Brings Chinese-Style Censorship to America’s Tweens

David Ramli and Shelly Banjo’s profile of TikTok reveals that its parent company, ByteDance, is engaging US regulators in an effort not to be blocked. This was new to me:

In an April 1 filing, the company said it’s in talks with CFIUS. U.S. authorities haven’t said they’re investigating Bytedance in connection with its ownership, but the company’s large user base could conceivably make it a target. “Social media platforms are increasingly considered sensitive by CFIUS,” says Farhad Jalinous, chair of the national security and CFIUS practice at law firm White & Case LLP. Bytedance says it now stores all TikTok data outside of China and that the Chinese government has no access. (The company’s privacy policy had previously warned users it could share their information with its Chinese businesses, as well as law enforcement agencies and public authorities, if legally required to do so.)

Presenting search app and browser options to Android users in Europe

Android users in Europe will get a pro-competition version of the operating system, Google said today (in response to government pressure).

Following the changes we made to comply with the European Commission’s ruling last year, we’ll start presenting new screens to Android users in Europe with an option to download search apps and browsers.

These new screens will be displayed the first time a user opens Google Play after receiving an upcoming update. Two screens will surface: one for search apps and another for browsers, each containing a total of five apps, including any that are already installed. Apps that are not already installed on the device will be included based on their popularity and shown in a random order

Elsewhere

Today, a story about Facebook’s ongoing pivot to privacy, in four parts.

1. Facebook says it ‘unintentionally uploaded’ 1.5 million people’s email contacts without their consent

Rob Price has the scoop that Facebook obtained an unknown number of contacts from 1.5 million users. It did this by asking some users creating new accounts to verify those accounts by typing in their email passwords, which everyone now agrees was a bad idea and no one at Facebook has really explained how or why such a feature would come to exist.

2. An EU government data watchdog is ‘engaging’ with Facebook after it harvested 1.5 million users’ email contacts without consent

Ireland’s Data Protection Commission is now looking into the matter.

3. Experts: Facebook may have broken law by harvesting 1.5m users’ email contacts

This move also “potentially violated multiple laws — including a US FTC consent decree, the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — the European Union’s data privacy regulation — and while there would likely be a strong defence for Facebook, perhaps even the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), a US criminal statute involving computer fraud and abuse.”

4. Facebook says it stored millions of Instagram passwords unencrypted on its servers

Oh just take it away, Kurt Wagner:

On the same morning Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian election interference finally became public, Facebook dropped some troubling news: Millions of Instagram users’ passwords were accidentally stored unencrypted on Facebook’s servers, which means Facebook employees could access them.

Facebook first announced late last month that it had stored hundreds of millions of user passwords unencrypted on its servers, a massive security problem. At the time, it said that “tens of thousands” of Instagram passwords were also stored in this way.

On Thursday morning, Facebook updated its blog to say that, actually, “millions” of Instagram users, not “tens of thousands,” were impacted.

Pinterest begins its first day of trading at $23.75, up 25%

On Thursday, Pinterest began trading on the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday under the cute ticker “PINS.” It had a good first day, and raised more than expected — $1.4 billion — in its IPO.

Pinterest raises $1.4 billion in better-than-expected IPO

Pinterest shares priced higher than expected, but still below their last private value.

Twitter acqui-hires highlight-sharing app Highly

Highly made an app for sharing text-based screenshots on Twitter more easily, and now Twitter has bought them. As someone who tweets screenshots of this newsletter on a near-daily basis, I’d love to see a beautiful native integration.

Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel will reappear at Disrupt SF

Perhaps feeling a bit more confident after pulling off a successful event in Los Angeles a couple weeks ago, Spiegel will sit down for a live interview with TechCrunch in the fall.

Launches

Instagram has considered hiding the like count on people’s photos

As someone who is bad at Instagram, I would love to use a version of Instagram that hid my likes along with everyone else’s.

YouTube is finally coming back to Amazon’s Fire TV devices

Google yanked YouTube off of Amazon’s Fire TV platform in 2017 over a variety of competitive issues. Now it’s back, in exchange for Amazon adding Chromecast support to the Prime Video mobile app. (There’s a big exception, though: the Echo Show, Amazon’s smart speaker with a display, still won’t get YouTube.)

YouTube Premium subscribers might soon get $2 monthly to send to their favorite creators

As a satisfied YouTube Premium subscriber, I look forward on being able to lavish $2 on my favorite creators. Who basically all work for the Bon Appetit channel.

Takes

No, YouTube Cannot Reasonably Moderate All Content On Its Platform

Mike Masnick takes issue with the idea that YouTube can solve its moderation issues simply by making a single person watch every video that is uploaded:

Oh, and we’re still assuming that a single person viewing the video is all that’s needed. But that’s wrong. Last year, when we ran our “You Make the Call” game at the Content Moderation Summit in DC, one of the things we noted was that in every example we made the audience vote on, there was no uniform agreement on what content should be allowed or disallowed – even when we specifically highlighted the rule that the content likely violated. On every single example, people disagreed and had strong arguments for why some content should be allowed, while others believed it should be taken down, and vice versa.

So, at the very least you’d want at least two people to review each piece of content, but then if they disagreed, you’d probably want a third reviewer. And that assumes that a sample size of three is actually reasonable. It probably isn’t. Hell, our sample size of ~100 reviewers at the Content Moderation Summit couldn’t agree on anything, so it’s not clear how many people you’d actually need, but it’s at least double the 200,000 employees we’d already mentioned. So, no we’re talking about at least 400,000 employees, almost quintupling the size of Google’s workforce solely because sometimes a few bad videos get through the existing process.

White Nationalism Overshadowed at Congressional Hearing on White Nationalism

The Digital Forensics Research Lab argues that Republicans were able to blunt the impact of a recent Democratic hearing on white nationalism by inviting social-media star Candace Owens, who successfully hijacked everyone’s attention.

Instead of focusing on the historic nature of the testimony or potential policy solutions, Twitter conversation focused predominantly on a clash between two personalities with a significant online presence. Such framing trivialized the serious issues under discussion and exercised an outsize impact on media coverage of the hearing.

Consequently, questions of white nationalist terrorism and the role of social-media companies received little attention. On the other hand, the feud between Owens and Lieu received altogether too much.

And finally ...

HBO still doesn’t like Trump using Game of Thrones memes to promote himself

It’s enough that the Mueller report did not exonerate the president. Now HBO is exhorting him not to use its material to make memes about himself:

Trump tweeted a meme about the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on his investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election. The main font featured in the image below is lifted directly from HBO’s most popular series. This isn’t the first time Trump has used a Game of Thrones meme to address a controversy he’s involved in, but HBO has issued a statement essentially asking the president to stop.

“Though we can understand the enthusiasm for Game of Thrones now that the final season has arrived, we still prefer our intellectual property not be used for political purposes,” an HBO spokesperson told Bloomberg.

I’m mostly sympathetic to this idea, but I do think some similarities between politics here and in Westeros could make for good memeing.

Talk to me

Send me tips, comments, questions, and lightly redacted reports: casey@theverge.com.