Earlier this year, Facebook bolstered its contingent of security experts from 10,000 to 15,000. It seems they’ve been busy.
This week, the company deactivated 32 accounts it says displayed “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” and were designed to whip up political unrest in the United States in advance of this fall’s mid-term elections. Add that number to the hundreds of mostly Russian-linked accounts deleted this spring and, hey, it’s a start.
There is scant evidence that narrow-cast propaganda delivered via Facebook has a decisive effect at the ballot box. But that’s not the same as saying it can’t condition electoral, political and social environments. And that’s a real problem.
There is no easy way for users to sort through and identify millions of micro-targeted ads, messages and “news” items on Facebook. To rely on Silicon Valley’s public-spiritedness is to be in a very bad place. Plus, technology makes it simple for would-be propagandists to set up shop under a new, anonymous guise. Pick your metaphor for trying to stop them: Sisyphus’s stone or Whack-a-Mole.
And social networks create hothouse conditions for the spread of pernicious disinformation. The now-shuttered political consultancy Cambridge Analytica needed only 270,000 Facebook users to gain access to 50-million profiles.
In fairness, Facebook has poured substantial resources into identifying fake news. It has moved against the perpetrators – albeit often arbitrarily and with results the company’s many critics find unsatisfying.
But shouldn’t governments also get involved when the sovereignty of their elections is at stake? Some countries clearly think so. Sri Lanka, for instance, blamed Facebook for fanning ethnic tensions and mob violence last March. So it cut off access for several days.
Here at home, the intelligence community has issued repeated warnings over the past year that malign foreign actors could attempt to influence our elections. Elections Canada has announced it is shoring up cybersecurity and preparing a public awareness campaign.
But given the latest Facebook revelations, Ottawa needs a more comprehensive plan to safeguard the 2019 federal vote. Now would be a good time to tell Canadians about it.