MUNICH, Germany — Facebook was caught off guard by the announcement of Israeli elections in April, but will soon announce strategies for protecting the platform and its users from online manipulation and abuse, The Times of Israel has learned.
At this point, no fact-checkers have been employed to specifically flag problematic content in the run-up to the April 9 election — as they have been, in their thousands, for elections elsewhere in the world.
Conversations on Sunday on the sidelines of a digital innovation conference in Germany revealed that the company has a worldwide “crack team” of engineers that is constantly on the look-out for attempts to meddle in the affairs of nation-states, including Israel.
The Times of Israel was unable, however, to establish whether the Silicon Valley giant will be extending to Israel a transparency policy that it previously introduced in the US and the UK to require all political advertisements to specify who paid for them.
Earlier this month, the head of the Shin Bet security service, Nadav Argaman, told a Friends of Tel Aviv University gathering that a foreign state “intended to intervene,” through hacking into Israel’s national elections, set for April 9. Unbidden, Russia hurriedly denied that it had any such intentions.
Facebook has been widely discredited for having failed to stymie Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections, and for allowing the British firm, Cambridge Analytica, to acquire data from tens of millions of Facebook users, on the basis of which Cambridge Analytica developed algorithms to micro-target voters with personalized political messaging.
More recently, the company got itself mired in controversy again for hiring a Republican-associated research company that sought to link anti-Facebook protesters with George Soros, the Jewish US billionaire who supports liberal causes and has become a regular punching bag for the political right.
On Sunday, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg addressed the Digital Life Design (DLD) conference in Munich with a polished, contrite speech, in which she acknowledged the company’s past failures while trying to convey the message that Facebook had grown up and become transparent and responsible.
Sandberg would not take any questions after her address, and was immediately shepherded away by bouncers.
Presenting five steps taken over the last couple of years, Sandberg — who like Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg is Jewish — told the invitation-only conference, chaired by German publishing magnate Hubert Burda and Israeli tech investor and entrepreneur Yossi Vardi, that since 2016, the company had fundamentally changed.
Since 2017, it had tripled to 30,000 the number of people working for the company on safety and security, she said. It was also investing in artificial intelligence systems that could work faster to identify and deal with online abuse. “People want to know that we care more about protecting them than about the bottom line, and we do,” she insisted. “We are spending billions of dollars per year on security. This is the right thing to do because nothing is more important than keeping people safe.”
The company was working more closely with governments and external companies, Sandberg continued.
She announced to the conference — attended by a substantial Israeli tech contingent — that Facebook was creating an “integrity and security initiative,” in cooperation with the German federal office for information and security, enabling companies and researchers to help guide policy making in Germany and across the EU on election interference.
The company was blocking more than a million fake accounts every day, often as soon as they were created, she went on, and was working with fact-checkers around the world to reduce the distribution of fake news.
Sandberg claimed that independent studies were already showing that these strategies had cut fake news and unreliable sites by half.
On personal data, she admitted that, “We didn’t do a good job managing our platform.”
The company, she said, had since cut the information that apps could access, established a dedicated privacy and data use team to build stronger protections, appointed an independent data protection officer, and rolled out privacy controls worldwide.
Furthermore, she said, transparency was being increased. Last year, Facebook published its first community standards report on content it had removed, and from next year, such reports would be published quarterly,
Showing users relevant adverts and protecting privacy were not in conflict, Sandberg said, insisting the company did not sell people’s data and did not give advertisers people’s information without their permission.
“We use information in a privacy-safe way to show people things they might be interested in.”
But Facebook was “far from done,” she went on, and understood that it had to work with governments and others to write regulatory frameworks that struck the right balance between competing demands, such as allowing freedom of expression while clamping down on hate speech.
“We’ve come to believe that Facebook shouldn’t make so many important decisions on freedom of speech on our own,” she said.
The company was setting up an independent body to which people could appeal about content on Facebook, and pilot projects would start later this year.
It was also partnering with the French government on a project to fight hate speech and would be investing $7.5 million to build a new, academically independent, artificial intelligence ethics institute at Munich’s Technical University.
Sandberg said that following the initial phase of platforms like Facebook, the world was now entering “a longer period of reflecting and learning,” one in which the rules and boundaries for the internet would be written.
People wanted an internet that was neither out of control, nor too tightly controlled, and the tech industry had to work together on this with governments, people, civil society groups and advocacy organizations.
“People around the world tell us they want an internet where people can speak up, but are not spreading hate, where communities come together without interference or abuse, and where everyone can access the benefits of technology, while their privacy is protected. We strongly agree.”
She added, “We know we need to do better at anticipating the risks that we know come from connecting so many people. We need to stop abuse more quickly and do more to protect people’s data… We need to earn back people’s trust with the actions that we take.”
“We acknowledged our mistakes. We are listening and learning and we are making progress. We are not the same company we were in 2016 or even a year ago.”
Digital Life Design is a global conference network, organized by the Munich based DLD Media, a company of Burda Digital. A DLD conference will be held in Tel Aviv later this year.
Refusal to speak to the media
As The Times of Israel has reported, last October, just before local elections took place nationwide, Israel’s national cyber directorate, based in the Prime Minister’s Office, revealed not only that it was working with online social media giants to prevent interference, but that thousands of fake Facebook profile accounts created to spread false information about Israeli political candidates had been taken offline at the agency’s request, along with “a lot of avatars [social media profiles] created to try to change public opinion and to manipulate information.”
Erez Tidhar, head of the directorate’s personal protection unit, told the Knesset Science and Technology Committee that month that these were among 583 million accounts that the social media giant said it had shut down in the first quarter of last year due to their potential dissemination of “fake news.” Tidhar indicated at the meeting that Israeli political parties were behind some of the fake Facebook profiles. Neither the cyber directorate nor the PMO were willing to provide any additional details and have since refused all requests by The Times of Israel for interviews. The local elections were indeed marred by significant amounts of fake profiles and posts.
Facebook Israel’s head of policy and communications is Jordana Cutler. A former adviser and close aide to Netanyahu and Israel’s US Ambassador Ron Dermer, Cutler was a member of the Likud party’s campaign team for the 2009 national elections, before she joined the Prime Minister’s Office in 2009. Repeated requests by The Times of Israel since October to interview Cutler have been turned down. A statement received from Facebook earlier this month just said, “We are working on different tools which will help us to protect the integrity of the elections and we’ll provide an update on the details in an organized fashion.”