Facebook Details Election Security Improvements

While under heavy fire for the user privacy blunder involving U.K. firm Cambridge Analytica, Facebook took its time this week to present some of the steps it is taking to protect elections from abuse and exploitation on its platform.

The United States this month announced sanctions against Russia for supposed attempts to influence the 2016 US presidential election, after it charged 13 Russians for their role in a campaign supposedly aimed at tilting the vote.

The United States, however, wasn’t the only country hit by such attacks: Canada, France, and Germany (and possibly other countries too) were hit as well. These cyber-attacks prompted the launch of Google’s election security solutions, but Facebook is now looking to strengthen protections against other types of election meddling.

“By now, everyone knows the story: during the 2016 US election, foreign actors tried to undermine the integrity of the electoral process. Their attack included taking advantage of open online platforms — such as Facebook — to divide Americans, and to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt,” Guy Rosen, VP of Product Management, notes.

There are four main election security areas Facebook plans to improve: combating foreign interference, removing fake accounts, increasing ads transparency, and reducing the spread of false news.

According to Alex Stamos, Facebook’s Chief Security Officer, the social platform will focus on tackling four major issues related to fake news, namely the use of false identities, fake audiences, false facts, and false narratives.

After understanding the various kinds of fake news the platform has to deal with, the next step is to distinguish between motivations for spreading misinformation, Stamos also points out. Successfully combating actors requires the ability to prevent them from reaching those goals.

Organized, professional groups are usually after the money, and the misinformation Facebook has encountered so far came from groups looking to gain financially by driving traffic to their sites. Thus, the goal is to increase the cost of such operations and decrease profitability.

Other organized actors focus on artificially influencing public debates. Ranging from private groups to state intelligence services, these actors have both foreign and domestic targets, meaning that an eye should be kept on domestic manipulation as well.

Less organized groups and individuals might spread misinformation as well, either because they like causing chaos and disruption (the so called Internet “trolls”) or because they don’t realize they are sharing false stories.

“Each country we operate in and election we are working to support will have a different range of actors with techniques are customized for that specific audience. We are looking ahead, by studying each upcoming election and working with external experts to understand the actors involved and the specific risks in each country,” Stamos says.

According to Samidh Chakrabarti, Product Manager, Facebook is currently blocking millions of fake accounts each day straight from the creation point, before they can do harm.

The platform looks into pages that attempt to distribute inauthentic civic content and removes them when that is the case, takes against Pages and domains that repeatedly share false news, is doubling the number of people working on safety issues from 10,000 to 20,000, and is partnering with third-party fact-checking organizations to prevent the spreading of fake news.

Facebook is also building a new transparency feature for the ads on the platform. Now in testing in Canada, a feature called View Ads allows anyone to view all the ads that a Facebook Page is running across the platform.

“Next we’ll build on our ads review process and begin authorizing US advertisers placing political ads. This spring, in the run up to the US midterm elections, advertisers will have to verify and confirm who they are and where they are located in the US,” Rob Leathern, Product Management Director, explains.

The process will involve a number of checks and steps and election-related ads will be clearly marked in people’s Facebook and Instagram feeds. The social network also plans the launch of a public archive with all the ads that ran with a political label.

Related: Facebook as an Election Weapon, From Obama to Trump

Related: Fake News: Methods, Motivations and Countermeasures

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Ionut Arghire is an international correspondent for SecurityWeek.

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