Facebook played a vital role in the outcome of the 2016 election—ask any digital director on one of the presidential campaigns, or maybe some Russian propagandists.
News that Facebook took at least $100,000 from Russian troll farms to promote socially and politically divisive content reignited discussion around just how much of an impact Facebook had in getting Donald Trump elected.
It also begged a serious question: Had Facebook helped Russia manipulate the outcome?
“They can stop me from selling a gun to my neighbor on Facebook, but they can’t stop Russians from buying ads that are fake news?” said Wesley Donehue, digital director for Marco Rubio’s campaign. “That’s just negligence.”
In the past year, Facebook’s message on its role in the election has changed dramatically. CEO and cofounder Mark Zuckerberg went from saying fake news and Facebook affecting the election was a “crazy idea” to instituting a major crackdown on shady publishers and creating a task force within the company dedicated to investigating the spread of misinformation.
Meanwhile, evidence of Russia’s efforts to help Trump win mounted, as did reports that members of the Trump campaign were in contact with Russian agents.
Now, it’s clear that Russia’s efforts to help elect Donald Trump included manipulating Facebook. And nobody is quite sure how deep this rabbit hole is going to go.
Here’s what we know happened:
December 11, 2015
Republican candidate Ted Cruz’s campaign was exposed for using psychological data pulled from tens of millions of Facebook users by Cambridge Analytica, The Guardian reported. The firm was later connected to the Trump campaign.
Facebook employees used a company poll to ask Zuckerberg if the company should try “to help prevent President Trump in 2017,” Gizmodo reported.
The FBI confirmed it opened an investigation into the hacking of the DNC’s computer network. It is the first time Russian interference in the U.S. election is publicly confirmed to be under investigation.
The new joke in town is that Russia leaked the disastrous DNC e-mails, which should never have been written (stupid), because Putin likes me
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 25, 2016
The Wall Street Journal reported Zuckerberg ruled it would be inappropriate to censor Trump’s posts.
October 27, 2016
Details on Trump’s digital operation called “Project Alamo” are explored in a Bloomberg report. For example, his team created a Facebook ad with the text, “Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators,” and targeted it to African American voters in order to “depress Clinton’s vote total,” Bloomberg wrote.
“I wouldn’t have come aboard, even for Trump, if I hadn’t known they were building this massive Facebook and data engine,” Steve Bannon told Bloomberg. “Facebook is what propelled Breitbart to a massive audience. We know its power.”
November 10, 2016
Zuckerberg made his first public statements about the effect of fake news on the election. He rejected the notion that it had any impact.
“Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way. I think is a pretty crazy idea. Voters make decisions based on their lived experience,” Zuckerberg said.
November 12, 2016
Zuckerberg published a blog post saying 99 percent of what people see on Facebook is authentic.
November 14, 2016
Facebook employees spoke out against Zuckerberg’s dismissal of fake news affecting the election and formed an “unofficial task force,” BuzzFeed reported.
November 15, 2016
In an interview with Wired, Trump’s digital director Brad Parscale said, “Facebook and Twitter were the reason we won this thing. Twitter for Mr. Trump. And Facebook for fundraising.”
Meanwhile, Facebook and Google said they would no longer allow ads to appear on fake news sites via their advertising networks.
November 19, 2016
Zuckerberg published a late-night blog post on steps his company was taking to fight fake news.
“The bottom line is: we take misinformation seriously,” Zuckerberg wrote. “We take this responsibility seriously. We’ve made significant progress, but there is more work to be done.”
November 21, 2016
Stories of fake news writers were shared, such as Tess Townsend’s story on Ovidiu Drobota for Inc.
“I am not related with the Trump campaign. I am just a Trump supporter. I don’t like to be in public because a lot of liberals calls [sic] me a racist, which I am not. I have a lot of Facebook messages. They are harassing me. I also don’t have any relation with Russia or WikiLeaks. Just to be clear,” Drobota said.
November 22, 2016
Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner talked about targeting voters on Facebook as part of a Forbes cover story.
“Chatting over McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwiches, Trump and Kushner talked about how the campaign was underutilizing social media. The candidate, in turn, asked his son-in-law to take over his Facebook initiative,” Forbes wrote.
“I called somebody who works for one of the technology companies that I work with, and I had them give me a tutorial on how to use Facebook micro-targeting,” Kushner told Forbes.
Facebook began working with third-party fact-checking sites and rolling out fake news labels on stories posted to the site.
January 6, 2017
A report from the Director of National Intelligence linked social media and Russian propaganda advocating for Trump’s election.
“A journalist who is a leading expert on the Internet Research Agency claimed that some social media accounts that appear to be tied to Russia’s professional trolls—because they previously were devoted to supporting Russian actions in Ukraine—started to advocate for President-elect Trump as early as December 2015,” the report read.
April 28, 2017
Facebook released a white paper that includes investigations of fake news during the election. The report said they could not determine who the malicious actors were, but they did not contradict the earlier report from the Director of National Intelligence on Russia’s involvement.
“When asked we said there was no evidence of Russian ads. That was true at the time,” a Facebook spokesperson told Mashable Thursday.
June 28, 2017
Facebook updated product to not allow Page owners to modify text in shared links, hoping to prevent writing fake news headline. This is one of the ways a propaganda machine could make news stories appear differently on Facebook compared to on a website.
July 20, 2017
A CNN report revealed that Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, who serves in the Senate intelligence committee, met with Facebook officials in June “as part of his committee’s investigation into potential collusion or election interference” with Russia.
Trump digital staffer Gary Coby told CNN that the campaign had not coordinated with Russian operatives but that Facebook did work directly with the Trump campaign.
August 13, 2017
The BBC released an interview with Theresa Hong, one of the members of Trump’s digital operations. She repeatedly said how important Facebook was to the campaign.
“Without Facebook we wouldn’t have won. Facebook really and truly put us over the edge,” Hong said.
August 28, 2017
Facebook released an update to prevent pages that share fake news articles from advertising, which is one of the most popular ways to distribute false information on the social network.
September 6, 2017
Facebook revealed in a blog post that as much as $100,000 in political ads was spent by potential Russian propaganda sides. These ad buys were from June 2015 to May 2017 and associated with roughly 3,000 ads connected to 470 inauthentic Facebook accounts and Pages, according to Facebook.
September 7, 2017
Sen. Mark Warner of the Senate Intelligence Committee said during a panel hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance that Facebook’s report on $100,000 spend by Russian sites was “the tip of the iceberg,” CNN reported.
A New York Times investigation revealed more mechanisms on Facebook and Twitter with Russian fingerprints.
* * * *
What Zuckerberg once thought was a “crazy idea” is now reality—misleading information and propaganda spread on Facebook during the 2016 election.
“We knew [fake news] was happening, but I didn’t stop and appreciate the scale of it,” said Kevin Bingle, digital director for John Kasich’s presidential campaign. Bingle said he once saw an example of fake news about his candidate right around the Republican National Convention. An article apparently from the fake news site The Washington Daily (“or something”) had the headline, “Breaking News: John Kasich has left the GOP.” He saw that it had 37,000 shares.
“Okay so 37,000 people could have seen it? No, no, no it’s much much larger than that, all the friends that engage in your content. That’s magnitudes of tens of hundreds of thousands, Bingle said.
The severity of the problem is emphasized by the many efforts that Facebook has employed to curb the manipulation of its platform. These actions are necessary for the good of future elections and for news consumption in general.
But Zuckerberg could yet face a day in court to testify on behalf of his social network. Sharing fake news on Facebook is not illegal, unless it’s the case of a foreign entity interfering in the election, and Facebook’s latest report shows that Russia could have been directly involved.
The U.S. government and Facebook are still investigating the matter for more proof. As Sen. Warner said, $100,000 may just be the beginning.