Russia Probe Sparks Criticism of Facebook
Facebook Inc. is contending with a new wave of criticism prompted by the U.S. indictment alleging that Russia manipulated social-media platforms—and by a Facebook executive’s attempts to address the issue.
The indictment against Russian companies and individuals described how an organization called the Internet Research Agency allegedly used Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to sow discord in the U.S. starting in 2014. The document’s description of events showed that Facebook and its Instagram photo-sharing unit were particularly central to the alleged Russian attempts to influence U.S. public opinion.
Researchers who study social media said the indictment, secured by special counsel Robert Mueller, showed that Facebook was ill-prepared for such efforts. Facebook has more than 25,000 employees, but fewer than 100 Russian provocateurs armed with social-media savvy and widely available technological tools were able to manipulate its platform for years, the indictment says.
While the indictment does not accuse Facebook of any wrongdoing, it provided the first comprehensive account from the authorities of how critical the company’s platforms had been to the Russian campaign to disrupt the 2016 election. Facebook and Instagram were mentioned 41 times, while other technology that the Russians used was featured far less. Twitter was referred to nine times, YouTube once and the electronic payments company PayPal 11 times.
It is unprecedented for an American technology company to be so central to what the authorities say was a foreign scheme to commit election fraud in the United States. The indictment further batters Facebook’s image after it has spent months grappling with questions about how it was misused and why it did not act earlier to prevent that activity.
“They’re taking steps to fix this, but there’s no easy solution,” Anton Vuljaj, a Republican media strategist who has advised campaigns and media groups, said of Facebook and other social media companies. “This also shows that the public needs to be more vigilant about what is real and what is not online.”