Facebook Vows to Fix Its Biggest Problems, but It’s Clearly Ready to Move on

By Kate Conger on at

Mark Zuckerberg may have ditched the dark suit he wore during his congressional appearances last month, but the serious data-privacy and election-security issues raised during his testimony are still very much on his mind.

Zuckerberg said it to members of the House and Senate in mid-April and repeated it to a convention center packed with developers today: Facebook can—and must—do better. “What I’ve learned this year is that we need to take a broader view of our responsibility. It’s not enough to just build powerful tools, we need to make sure that they’re used for good. And we will,” Zuckerberg said. He highlighted user privacy repeatedly during a keynote address at the social media giant’s F8 developers conference today, working it into his discussion of Facebook’s new dating platform, cookie-clearing tool, and video chat features.

But it’s obvious that Zuckerberg wants to move beyond his company’s scandals—even though, with the midterm elections on the horizon, it’s more important than ever that Facebook prepare itself for an onslaught of misinformation and data harvesting.

The company’s anticipated announcement of a new home speaker was reportedly scrapped from today’s F8 agenda because its unveiling would raise too many questions about privacy at a time when Facebook is already fending off criticism about its wanton harvesting and distribution of data. Although Zuckerberg said he is taking privacy and security seriously, he also cracked jokes about his congressional testimony, suggesting he’s eager to laugh-off the experience.

While discussing Watch Party, which Facebook friends can use to watch live videos together, Zuckerberg played a clip of his testimony. “So let’s say that your friend is testifying in Congress, for example,” he joked, to laughter and applause. “Now you’re going to be able to bring your friends together, you can laugh together, you can cry together. Some of my friends actually did this. Let’s not do that again any time soon.”

If Zuckerberg wants to avoid another trip to Capitol Hill, Facebook needs to get through the next election cycle without another Kremlin-backed troll farm filling the News Feed with malicious ads, or another data broker siphoning up information about 87 million Facebook users through a seemingly innocuous app. Zuckerberg called Cambridge Analytica’s actions a “breach of trust” and noted that Facebook was caught flat-footed by Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. “We didn’t expect these coordinated information operations and large networks of fake accounts that we’re now aware of,” he explained. “So I sat down with our teams after this and I said, ‘We will never be unprepared for this again.’”

But exactly how Facebook plans to avoid these pitfalls going forward didn’t get squeezed into this morning’s keynote alongside announcements about Oculus, Instagram, and WhatsApp. Instead, Facebook’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos—who is reportedly leaving the company in August, prior to the midterms—updated a much smaller crowd about the company’s election security efforts later in the afternoon.

Facebook is preparing for three types of election attacks, Stamos explained—attacks that use misinformation or false amplification to spread fake news; attacks that use harassment, violence, or hacking; and attacks that are intended to reduce voter turnout.

Disenfranchisement efforts can use misinformation or threats, Stamos said. For instance, an attacker could spread a fake news story claiming that polling places are closing early, or threaten violence against voters who show up to specific polling places. Facebook imagines that these kinds of attacks might be targeted against specific demographic groups or supporters of a particular candidate.

“While our solutions to these issues are going to have to be customised for each of the dozens of elections that we’re looking to protect in 2018, the overall framework is going to be more or less the same,” Stamos said.

In addition to preparing for and preventing attacks, Facebook is also trying to make democracy a fun feature—it’s encouraging users to engage directly with their local representatives through a tool called Town Hall.

However, it’s not yet clear how well any of Facebook’s responses to misinformation and data harvesting will work. Between Stamos’ impending departure and Facebook’s decision to carve off its election integrity efforts from its high-profile product announcements, it’s easy to imagine these efforts being sidelined as the company tries desperately to move on and repair its image—even if doing so is essential to that goal.

“Misinformation is an ancient tactic, but its application to social networks that scale across billions of people, and the responsibilities of those platforms, is something that has not been well-defined,” Stamos said. “And we are working really hard to understand what happened in the US in 2016 and to make sure that doesn’t happen again, either in the US or in any of the elections around the world.”