After 2016 Failures, Facebook Faces New Test in 2018 Midterms

Social media giant accused of being too passive on foreign interference in 2016 elections

Executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google, are sworn into a Senate Judiciary Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee hearing on “Extremist Content and Russian Disinformation Online: Working with Tech to Find Solutions” in  October. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Just a few months out from the 2018 midterm primaries and less than a year away from general elections, Facebook appears determined to stamp out foreign interference.

The tech and social media giant was the subject of intense criticism after the 2016 election cycle for failing to curb the spread of misinformation and break down so-called echo chambers of news-sharing and political discourse.

In September, Facebook turned over to Congress more than 3,000 advertisements on its site from 470 fake accounts and pages run by the Internet Research Agency, a group based in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Those advertisements preyed on homophobic and racist tendencies and divided voters on 2016 presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

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At a Senate Intelligence Committee meeting in November, Facebook officials revealed that the Russian campaign reached 146 million Americans on its social media, which include Facebook and Instagram.

Stemming election interference will “require a real determined effort by the company to mitigate the way people are misusing the platform,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told USA Today.

“There is a lot of work to do,” he said. “The bad actors, Russians among them, are going to be hiding their tracks better so it’s going to require a real deliberate effort to sleuth them out.”

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said he is committed to curtailing foreign government influence on U.S. politics after initially fighting back against claims his company did not do enough to stop it ahead of the 2016 elections. The company wants to “make this as difficult as possible going forward,” he told USA Today in November.

“We are willing to do whatever we need to do to work on it and solve it,” Zuckerberg said.

The company has publicly pushed the idea that it is reflecting on its role in facilitating political discourse — and that there is still a tremendous amount of work left to cover.

“At its best, [social media] allows us to express ourselves and take action. At its worst, it allows people to spread misinformation and corrode democracy,” Samidh Chakrabarti, Facebook’s product manager for civic engagement, wrote in a blog post on Monday. “I wish I could guarantee that the positives are destined to outweigh the negatives, but I can’t.”

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