During the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, technology companies were unaware -- even in denial -- that their platforms could be used for election manipulation.
Facebook Inc. had one major victory in the midterm elections: securing help from the government to keep foreign influence campaigns at bay.
As recently as September, the cooperation seemed difficult to achieve. While Facebook knew it would be held responsible for stopping the spread of misinformation, especially from foreign fake accounts, the company was nervous that it wouldn’t be able to deliver on that promise without help from U.S. authorities, people familiar with the matter said at the time.
Now, communication lines have started to open between Facebook and federal agencies including the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to the company. Facebook also established relationships with state election boards, so it could be alerted to problems as they occurred. Those connections are likely to strengthen ahead of the 2020 presidential election, when foreign interest in election manipulation may be higher. Twitter Inc., too, has strengthened its relationship with federal law enforcement agencies, seeking to protect against foreign influence.
The relationship with law enforcement is “crucial,” said Emilio Ferrara, assistant research professor at the University of Southern California. “This isn’t a problem you can solve only in a technological way. Algorithms give you some help, but it brings you only that far.”
The change came after aggressive outreach by Facebook, which intensified in September. As the company was being publicly questioned about and chastised for its response to the 2016 election, it was building relationships behind the scenes. Facebook said its executives and others met with hundreds of congressional offices to discuss election threats, and held open sessions for their staff once a week for the last few months. The company said it also offered individual “election integrity” briefings for every secretary of state and state election director.
“By working with the government to share information on threats and bad actors we can identify and deal with problems faster,” a Facebook spokesman said in a statement. “This is especially important when it comes to foreign interference because governments typically have better access to intelligence than companies about these types of issues.”
Sara Sendek, a DHS spokeswoman, wrote in an email that in the lead up to the midterms, the agency strengthened its relationship with social media companies and convened calls for the companies and election officials at the state and local level. Two such calls took place in August. “Securing the electoral process is a shared responsibility, and these types of partnerships play an important role in our ability to share information and take action,” she said.As many predicted, foreign governments tried to influence the midterms. The company disclosed several instances of coordinated political activity by Russia and Iran ahead of the election. But the most recent network of fake accounts, which Facebook took down right around Election Day, was based on a tip directly from federal agents — not something Facebook was able to find on its own. The tip came from the FBI, according to a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified because it was private.
“On the eve of the election, you have Facebook and Instagram taking down dozens of suspected Russian accounts on a tip-off from law enforcement, and publishing the news as soon as they did it,” said Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab, a network of researchers studying disinformation. That kind of cooperation shows “we’re light years away from 2016.”
During the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, technology companies were unaware — even in denial — that their platforms could be used for election manipulation. Researchers now cite the relationship that the technology companies have built with law enforcement as a key part of cleaning up Twitter and Facebook.
During the midterm elections, the troublesome content from domestic sources outweighed any foreign interference, researchers said. Twitter concluded that while it did see some malicious activity on the platform, it was mostly “low volume and low reach voter supressive content,” according to a tweet from the company.
Twitter said it has spent months meeting with the DHS in person and creating direct points of contact for the officials. The company has also created an online portal for government officials, law enforcement, and researchers to report any unusual activity they see, according to the company. “While our investigations will continue, it was evident on Election Day that we were more efficiently able to combat threats to information integrity through these partnerships,” a Twitter spokesperson said.
Though the companies appeared to pass this crucial test, the midterm elections are also a more complicated contest to manipulate, according to Nimmo. It’s likely that foreign meddlers are saving their best tactics for the presidential election, he said.
“2020 is a big target and it’s going to be a big problem,” Nimmo said. “2020 is a much more attractive target for foreign influence operations and it’s a much easier one since it’s a binary choice. It’s going to be harder to defend against.”