Mark Zuckerberg admits Facebook was slow on Russian disinformation

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has admitted his company had been slow to understand Russian disinformation campaigns during the last US election, as he appealed to political leaders for more regulation of online content.

Mr Zuckerberg — who was speaking at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday — struck a conciliatory tone, saying that Facebook had embarked on “significantly closer” collaboration with governments, electoral authorities and members of the intelligence community over the past four years, and was taking down more than 1m fake accounts a day. 

Social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have come under pressure to improve their response to hostile states and political groups using their platforms to spread misleading information.

Democratic candidate Joe Biden suggested last month that the laissez-faire approach taken by Facebook to extensive Russian disinformation campaigns ahead of the 2016 US election may have “amounted to collusion” that would “be equal to a criminal offence”. 

Mr Zuckerberg acknowledged that disinformation was increasingly sophisticated and that he was taking the risks seriously. “In the last year we’ve seen an evolution of threats in a few big ways,” he said, emphasising that election interference was not just foreign but “increasingly domestic”, perpetrated by local actors using the same tactics as the Russians had done four years ago.

The Facebook chief said that purveyors of disinformation were now more sophisticated at covering their tracks, deploying IP addresses which appear to be from several different countries. 

To combat the threat, Facebook has 35,000 people working on content and security review, Mr Zuckerberg said. “Our budget [for content review] is bigger today than the whole revenue of the company when we went public in 2012, when we had a billion users,” he said. 

The tech chief said he thought there should be more regulation of harmful content, making clear that companies such as his should not be forced to make judgments in this area.

MUNICH, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 15: Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives for the 2020 Munich Security Conference (MSC) on February 15, 2020 in Munich, Germany. The annual conference brings together global political, security and business leaders to discuss pressing issues, which this year include climate change, the US commitment to NATO and the spread of disinformation campaigns. (Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images)
Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg arrives for the 2020 Munich Security Conference © Getty

“We don’t want private companies making decisions about social equities . . . there should be more guidance and regulation from states on what discourse should be allowed,” he said. 

“Right now there are two frameworks that I think people have for existing industries — there’s like newspapers and existing media, and then there’s the telco-type model, which is ‘the data just flows through you’, but you’re not going to hold a telco responsible if someone says something harmful on a phone line,” Mr Zuckerberg explained.

“I actually think where we should be is somewhere in between.”

Analysts said the notable turnout of US tech businesses at this year’s Munich conference reflected how Europe was seen as a more eager regulator of the sector than Washington, with Brussels willing to levy large fines on companies. 

Social media companies and advertisers signed up in 2018 to a voluntary European Commission code of practice to combat the online spread of disinformation, while Brussels has not ruled out imposing regulations should it judge their performance poor. 

The commission also carried out targeted monitoring of Facebook, Google and Twitter ahead of last year’s European Parliament elections, requiring them to report monthly on their efforts to make political advertising more transparent and tackle fake accounts and malicious bots. 

The companies are also worried about mooted new rules including UK online harms legislation and a proposed EU Digital Services Act to set out rules for the tech sector. 

Alina Polyakova, president of the Center for European Policy Analysis think-tank, said Mr Zuckerberg’s appearance at the Bavarian security gathering was a sign of how much Facebook and other tech companies “see Europe moving much more aggressively on regulation” than the US. 

“Clearly this is where their battleground is,” she said. “If they are not showing themselves as willing to sit at the table, they are worried they are going to get slapped.” 

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