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Facebook Outlines New Steps to Curb Foreign Influence on U.S. Elections and ‘Fake News’

Facebook, still grappling with the the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica data-privacy scandal, shared details of new measures it’s taking to prevent “foreign actors” from trying to affect U.S. elections leading up to the 2018 midterms.

The company last fall disclosed that Russia-linked content — designed to spread fear and sow discord among Facebook’s U.S. user base — reached an estimated 126 million Americans on the platform during the 2016 campaign season and into 2017. In addition to Facebook, content from Russian operatives also was spread via Twitter.

After taking fire from lawmakers over Facebook’s role in facilitating Russia’s social-engineering attempts in the 2016 election cycle, the social-media giant has tried be forthcoming about what it’s trying to do to address the complaints.

Clearly, in 2016, Facebook was unprepared for such surreptitious gaming of its platform by foreign powers. CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in an interview last week with CNN, said, “I’m confident that we’re going to do a much better job” in fighting bad actors with this year’s U.S. elections.

Asked during the CNN interview if Facebook was aware of any attempts to meddle with the 2018 U.S. midterms, Zuckerberg responded, “I’m sure that there’s V2, version two of whatever the Russian effort was in 2016, I’m sure they’re working on that and there are going to be some new tactics that we need to make sure that we observe and get in front of.”

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In a media briefing Thursday, Guy Rosen, Facebook VP of product management, said there were four areas of “election security” it’s focused on: combating foreign interference, removing fake accounts, increasing ads transparency, and reducing the spread of fake news.

According to Facebook, it’s now blocking millions of fake accounts daily, using machine-learning algorithms. It’s also begun fact-checking photos and videos, in addition to article links, starting in France under a partnership with the AFP.

“None of us can turn back the clock, but we are all responsible for making sure the same kind of attack our democracy does not happen again,” Rosen said. “And we are taking our role in that effort very, very seriously.”

Also speaking to reporters was Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, who is reportedly set to leave the company in August over a disagreement with other execs over Facebook’s handling of the probe into Russian interference in the U.S. election process.

According to Stamos, the most common issues Facebook has found associated with so-called “fake news” are fake identities, fake audiences (using tricks to artificially expand the audience or the perception of support for a particular message), the assertion of false information; and false narratives, which are “intentionally divisive headlines and language that exploit disagreements and sow conflict.”

In 2017, during the special election for the U.S. Senate seat in Alabama — in which Democratic candidate Doug Jones narrowly defeated Republican Roy Moore — Facebook deployed some new artificial-intelligence tools to detect fake accounts that were trying to spread false news. “By looking specifically for foreign interference, we were able to identify a previously unknown set Macedonian political spammers who appeared to be financially motivated,” said product manager Samidh Chakrabarti.

As part of combating false information, Facebook uses third-party fact-checking organizations including the Associated Press, which is specifically keeping an eye out for false and misleading stories related to the federal, state and local U.S. midterm elections. When a fact-checker rates a story as “false,” Facebook reduces it distribution in News Feed on average by 80%, according to Tessa Lyons, product manager on Facebook’s News Feed. If those stories still show up a user’s News Feed, “we show more information from fact-checkers in a Related Articles unit,” she said.

With regard to “ad transparency,” last fall Facebook announced plans to build a new feature for all ads on Facebook to provide additional disclosures for ads related to the U.S. federal election. Facebook has been testing transparency across all ads in Canada, which shows all ads that a specific page is running across the platform. The company plans to launch the feature worldwide this summer.

Starting this spring, leading up to the U.S. midterms, advertisers “will have to verify and confirm who they are and where they are located in the U.S.,” said Rob Leathern, product management director. That will include a requirement that an administrator of a page buy an ad will have to submit a government-issued ID and provide a physical mailing address for verification. In addition, advertisers will be required to disclose what candidate, organization or business they represent.

Once authorized, an advertiser’s election-related ads for the U.S. will be marked in a way that’s “similar to the disclosure you see today for political ads on TV,” Leathern said, with a political label that will list the person, company, or organization that paid for the ad with a “paid for by” disclosure.

Facebook previously announced plans to double the size of its safety and security-monitoring team issues by the end of 2018, from 10,000 to 20,000 staffers, which includes content reviewers, systems engineers and security experts.

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