State-sponsored non-existent coffee shops
April 12, 2021 5:34 AM   Subscribe

The Guardian describes how you can manipulate the conversation on Facebook by commenting from Page accounts, courtesy of former employee Sophie Zhang who describes how this technique is used to distort political discourse around the world.
posted by Stark (41 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
Isn’t the fix to this to just make it so a Page can’t comment or Like anything? Why wouldn’t fb do that?
posted by gt2 at 6:25 AM on April 12 [4 favorites]


TFA:

“There is a lot of harm being done on Facebook that is not being responded to because it is not considered enough of a PR risk to Facebook,” said Sophie Zhang, a former data scientist at Facebook
posted by pompomtom at 6:28 AM on April 12 [9 favorites]


Facebook fired Zhang for poor performance in September 2020. On her final day, she published a 7,800-word farewell memo describing how she had “found multiple blatant attempts by foreign national governments to abuse our platform on vast scales to mislead their own citizenry” and lambasting the company for its failure to address the abuses. “I know that I have blood on my hands by now,” she wrote. News of the memo was first reported in September by BuzzFeed News.

Shouldn't "poor performance" be in quotes here? Given this statement:
Zhang told Rosen in December 2019 that she had been informed that threat intelligence would only prioritize investigating suspected CIB networks in “the US/western Europe and foreign adversaries such as Russia/Iran/etc”.

Rosen endorsed the framework, saying: “I think that’s the right prioritization.”



^ The life changing magic of keeping your receipts
posted by bleep at 6:30 AM on April 12 [23 favorites]


I read the article. My question still stands. What’s the benefit to fb for Pages to be able to comment and interact. Especially if they have to constantly investigate bogus activity. I guess the other fix would be to append the Page admins name to any activity.
posted by gt2 at 6:41 AM on April 12 [5 favorites]


My question still stands. What’s the benefit to fb for Pages to be able to comment and interact.

Zero change means zero dev-time, zero testing, zero deployment, zero cost.

Doing a thing is not that.
posted by pompomtom at 6:44 AM on April 12 [12 favorites]


(I'm pretty sure I'm being very nice to facebook to suggest that it's just uncaring cost-avoidiance, but Occam).
posted by pompomtom at 6:49 AM on April 12 [4 favorites]


I have a friend who used to use this to harass antivax communities- he'd rapidly switch from Page to Page to make it harder to block him. One neat trick, which I'm not sure works anymore, was that you could set a Page to hidden and make a bunch of comments, then unhide the Page and presto, all your comments are suddenly visible! This was handy for posting debunks at the end of threads, waiting a few days, then taking the page visible so that the debunk would be there for anybody who came by later but would go unnoticed by most of the actual group.

I think most of the stuff he showed me has been fixed, though.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:54 AM on April 12 [17 favorites]


Just to address the 'why' factor - a Page Account is often a business. I have a page for my business and I only use it to "like" and comment as the business to raise my profile. I don't do it very often (because Facebook) but, say, a colleague has posted their recent project, I might give it a 'like' as my business. I might comment somewhere as my business if I think I can lend some industry expertise to a thread and if someone appreciates what I've said then they may go look at my business page and hire me. There are millions of small businesses with pages and many of them create ads and boost posts - they are actually a money maker for F'book and probably a generally safe bet for them. The fact that people figured out how to game the system that is built to draw in easy money is just...par for the course.
posted by amanda at 7:10 AM on April 12 [7 favorites]


Also, Zhang is a hero.
posted by amanda at 7:12 AM on April 12 [12 favorites]


“There is a lot of harm being done on Facebook that is not being responded to because it is not considered enough of a PR risk to Facebook,” said Sophie Zhang, a former data scientist at Facebook who worked within the company’s “integrity” organization to combat inauthentic behavior.
Quoting quotes and scare quotes in the same sentence gets the Guardian some style points from me.
posted by flabdablet at 7:27 AM on April 12 [10 favorites]


Now use block quotes and cite blocked posts....
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:43 AM on April 12 [4 favorites]


Good LORD yet another article telling me how crappy Facebook is.
I tell myself that I need it for creating community around, and publicizing my podcasts, but man, I tell you, it's like once a week that Zuck and his minions either fuck up and say they'll do better or fuck up and say it wasn't their fault, so go pound sand.
I need to have a Come to Jesus with myself and figure out if it's worth it or not.
posted by Bill Watches Movies Podcast at 8:00 AM on April 12 [16 favorites]


Too many of us will choose false community over actual loneliness every time, myself included.
posted by mecran01 at 8:22 AM on April 12 [4 favorites]


Er... so what it is exactly, a Page account? TFA is behind a paywall.
posted by Rash at 8:26 AM on April 12


Shouldn't "poor performance" be in quotes here?

Funny thing, once you really wrap your head around the fact that you work at a bad company that does bad stuff and you're going to have to find a new job and leave all your expertise and trusted colleagues behind if you want to maintain your sense of personal integrity it's actually super common for your performance to suffer.
posted by potrzebie at 8:27 AM on April 12 [18 favorites]


I need to have a Come to Jesus with myself and figure out if it's worth it or not.

If not now, when?
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:28 AM on April 12 [2 favorites]


I feel like I've written this here before, but I can find it now so I'll repeat myself.

At a previous job during a company-wide meeting, the CEO talked about visiting the Facebook campus and repeated what they told him about their development process. Basically, when someone gets an idea for a new feature, they implement and deploy it in (IIRC) 36 hours. The reason for that number is because that's the longest amount of time they are allowed to keep an employee on the job for one stretch.

(Insert unionization rant here.)

But this means that the majority of Facebook's features were made without thinking about the consequence at all and were deployed by overtired people. The whole thing is a lot of little leaps without looking and they think that this is a good thing because hey, we're rich.

In conclusion, Facebook needs to die in a fire.

Thank you for coming to my TED talk.
posted by suetanvil at 8:55 AM on April 12 [10 favorites]


Rash: People can have Facebook accounts. People can also set up accounts for their restaurant or their band or whatnot. Signed in to the account for your business, you can like and comment the same way you can as your personal account.
posted by emelenjr at 8:59 AM on April 12


At a previous job during a company-wide meeting, the CEO talked about visiting the Facebook campus and repeated what they told him about their development process. Basically, when someone gets an idea for a new feature, they implement and deploy it in (IIRC) 36 hours. The reason for that number is because that's the longest amount of time they are allowed to keep an employee on the job for one stretch.
This sounds like the result of a game of telephone. I've read plenty of stories of labor abuse in technology and would readily believe that Facebook developers are overworked but the idea of a policy of 36-hour shifts is 20 hours beyond any sort of plausibility.
posted by skymt at 9:07 AM on April 12 [8 favorites]


TFA is behind a paywall.

Unless they've changed their policy very recently, I don't think the Guardian has paywalls per se. The way it's always worked for me is that they might ask you to please register, but you can just not do it and click on "I'll do it later" and still read the article.
posted by Umami Dearest at 9:13 AM on April 12 [6 favorites]


I've read plenty of stories of labor abuse in technology and would readily believe that Facebook developers are overworked but the idea of a policy of 36-hour shifts is 20 hours beyond any sort of plausibility.

Designing, developing, and deploying in 36 hours (all that work is not done by a single person) is not really even possible, except for the smallest things. The tech company I work for does occasional work with Facebook, the shortest sprints I've ever seen from them is 3 weeks for actual developer/design/implementation time for any particular feature, but projects last much longer, like 6 months on average, so 'feature' is something really small.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:56 AM on April 12 [3 favorites]


But threat intelligence – and numerous Facebook managers and executives – resisted investigating both the Honduras and Azerbaijan Page abuse cases, despite evidence in both cases linking the abuse to the national government. Among the company leaders Zhang briefed about her findings were Guy Rosen, the vice-president of integrity; Katie Harbath, the former public policy director for global elections ; Samidh Chakrabarti, the then head of civic integrity; and David Agranovich, the global threat disruption lead.

The cases were particularly concerning because of the nature of the political leaders involved. Hernández was re-elected in 2017 in a contest that is widely viewed as fraudulent. His administration has been marked by allegations of rampant corruption and human rights violations. Azerbaijan is an authoritarian country without freedom of the press or free elections.


Forget PR risk — what Facebook executives are doing to monetize their help for foreign governments appears to be illegal under US law. Zuckerberg and company should have their accounts frozen and be in front of a grand jury.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 11:35 AM on April 12 [6 favorites]


The ridiculous thing is that it took me all of 1/10th of a second to come up with a possible solution, but Facebook with all their money and programmers claim it’s not possible to solve. Here’s my stupidly simple fix: Make “Pages” posts LOOK different. Different background color, and include both the name and the business description rather than just the name. No more “Bob Smith”, now it’s “Bob Smith (Coffee Shop)” with a ‘Pages’ badge (like the little Twitter ‘verified account’ marker). That, plus a distinctively different background color. A visual tip that this is a corporate account, not a human.

Another suggestion - take the approach that a lot of comment sections do, and de-emphasize (or better yet, completely hide) posts from new accounts. Force the accountholder to obtain a certain amount of public trust before comments show for anyone other than persons they have friended. It wouldn't completely prevent fake accounts, but it would limit their damage while still allowing new users to interact with persons who have explicitly chosen to accept them as a contact.

Bill Watches Movies Podcast: "I need to have a Come to Jesus with myself and figure out if it's worth it or not."

It’s not.

For every single important thing I have missed by not being on Facebook, there are a gazillion stressful, awful, soul-numbingly bad things I have NOT had to witness. I can look at the hot mess of racism and greed and think that I have not tacitly approved or supported it by continuing to participate.

It is utterly depressing that “creating community” generally means “setting up a Facebook page” but there are alternatives that don't put you in bed with fascists.
posted by caution live frogs at 12:04 PM on April 12 [12 favorites]


But this means that the majority of Facebook's features were made without thinking about the consequence at all

As was Facebook itself.
posted by Cardinal Fang at 12:24 PM on April 12 [2 favorites]


Pages could have the ability to comment only on their own posts. This would enable literally 100% of the good-faith proper need for a Page to be able to comment, while preventing a lot of abuse.

There's no need for "Bob's Tractor Supply" to like or comment on something else. Bob can use his personal account for that.
posted by explosion at 12:40 PM on April 12 [2 favorites]


I'm pretty sure everyone at Facebook knows how to stop these nightmares. Everyone who works there could get a new job somewhere else tomorrow creating the most delightful & useful experiences ever devised by a human mind. The problem is that the product strategy requires these nightmares to exist to be successful and their product strategy comes right from the top.
posted by bleep at 1:03 PM on April 12 [3 favorites]


(Insert unionization rant here.)

Almost 100% of the the people you describe rolling out features (that definitely take more that 36 hours) bring in a half million dollars (or more) in total comp, per year. So, I wouldn't fell so sorry for them to be honest.
posted by sideshow at 1:12 PM on April 12 [1 favorite]


Pages could have the ability to comment only on their own posts. This would enable literally 100% of the good-faith proper need for a Page to be able to comment, while preventing a lot of abuse.

It would not. Business accounts being used to lend relevant technical help or suggestions as a way to subtly advertise has already been mentioned, but there's also artist accounts interacting with announcements by gallery accounts or each other, musicians and venues, labels, other musicians, etc, etc.
posted by Dysk at 1:15 PM on April 12 [4 favorites]


Make them a different colour.
posted by dazed_one at 1:30 PM on April 12 [1 favorite]


The internet was a mistake.
posted by glonous keming at 3:16 PM on April 12 [1 favorite]


Facebook manipulators will always pick the lowest hanging fruit. Right now that's Pages, but if Facebook tried even a little bit they could close that loophole using any of the several methods proposed in this thread. Then the bad actors would just move back to creating fake user accounts and compromising real accounts. The problem is Facebook isn't taking any of this seriously; it is just a symptom of that problem that there are technical issues with Facebook Pages that make it easy to manipulate the platform.
posted by zixyer at 3:22 PM on April 12 [4 favorites]


I need to have a Come to Jesus with myself and figure out if it's worth it or not.

I got rid of all Facebook-related accounts about 6 months ago. This includes Instagram and Whatsapp. I also used Insta for my business, and at first, deleting it cost me about $750 a month in sales. However, I whenever I was tempted to turn it back on I read another article like this one and say fuck 'em, it's only money. So many of my customers have said, "Kudos for you for doing it... I can't."

I miss most Whatsapp because I have lots of friends in countries that rely on the app as their only means of communication (well, they use FB messenger too). I tried to get them to switch or even use Signal or Telegram, but for most of them it was futile. I am greatly angered by how much of a hold FB companies have on countries where internet/data is so dependent on "free". I lived in Vanuatu for 4+ months and all the locals there use it and I no longer am able to talk to them.

Very frustrating, but truly, Fuck Facebook. Each day they make the world a worse place.
posted by dobbs at 3:50 PM on April 12 [5 favorites]


For me, the giveaway was this passage from the article:
In other cases, Facebook delayed taking action for months. When Zhang uncovered a network of fake accounts creating low-quality, scripted fake engagement on politicians in the Philippines in October 2019, Facebook left it to languish. But when a tiny subset of that network began creating an insignificant amount of fake engagement on Donald Trump’s Page in February 2020, the company moved quickly to remove it.
Like, yeah fuck whatever bad effects this might have on the 100+ million people in the Phillippines but if for one second it affects their image in the US, FB springs into action.
posted by mhum at 4:00 PM on April 12 [4 favorites]


The Internet was a great idea. Unfettered capitalism is the mistake.
posted by biogeo at 4:08 PM on April 12 [6 favorites]


The greatest trick the Devil Capitalism ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist it could be fettered.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:17 PM on April 12 [1 favorite]


Even better, a probationary period for Page accounts. You can create a Page and post content, but you must wait 6 months before commenting outside your Page is locked. That solves the problem of constant new fake accounts.
posted by freecellwizard at 9:03 AM on April 13 [1 favorite]


but you must wait 6 months

All this means is bad actors make a bunch of fake pages in parallel on a rolling basis. Then, when there is something to do today they just fire up the pages they already made 6 months ago. So all this really buys you is the initial 6 months and maybe keeps impulsive people out.
posted by delicious-luncheon at 4:04 AM on April 14 [3 favorites]


Honestly, I get that interacting "as" the brand or page can be seen as a positive (I run several nonprofits with facebook pages), but these kinds of interactions happen in the real world all the time, and no one introduces themselves as the organization, they introduce themselves as a person from the organization, and the same semantics would be fine. The real issue, also already mentioned, is that Facebook does not see this as a problem.
posted by Nothing at 4:29 AM on April 14


Honestly, I get that interacting "as" the brand or page can be seen as a positive (I run several nonprofits with facebook pages), but these kinds of interactions happen in the real world all the time, and no one introduces themselves as the organization, they introduce themselves as a person from the organization, and the same semantics would be fine.

Depends on the space you work in. Just as an example, I know a few drag performers who absolutely keep their personal lives separate from their drag personas, and absolutely introduce themselves as their "brand" in a lot of professional contexts.
posted by Dysk at 10:15 AM on April 14 [2 favorites]


It seems like a key issue is that, for FB, there are few things more important (for their profits) than being The Place For Brands To See and Be Seen. Anything that interferes with brand engagement threatens that position, and so the risk of interfering with brands' use of the platform is going to be taken way more seriously than the risk of being complicit in state-backed campaigns of "coordinated inauthentic behavior"(absent a very aggressive campaign to hold them accountable, as Zhang is advocating for). There are lots of policy and technical fixes that could be applied here, but they would inevitably shift the balance between brand engagement and misinformation in a profit-unfriendly way, and FB is unlikely to have much interest in applying them unless the landscape changes dramatically.
posted by Not A Thing at 10:44 AM on April 14 [1 favorite]


Sophie Zhang also did a Reddit IAmA today. I haven't finished reading it (or the Guardian article) yet, but I am floored by the thoughtfulness and power of her answers. The world desperately needs people with this integrity and clarity.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:24 PM on April 14 [2 favorites]


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