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Facebook hid webpages bragging of ability to influence elections (theintercept.com)
245 points by peterkelly on March 26, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 77 comments

Just a few years ago, the talking heads were fawning over a few politicians you might know, who claimed their social media strategy was the linchpin in winning the election. Political campaigns of a certain bend would brag about how rich their voter targeting data was and how much more effective they were with their advertising dollars online.

What I’m trying to understand is if the average reader thinks these methods are bad in general, or just bad when the “wrong” person uses them well?

Political advertising is actually important - we want issue focused ads helping communicate candidates stated positions on hot button issues. And yes, we even want the hit jobs when behavior warrants it and should be highlighted.

Is “influence elections” supposed to be a scary way of saying getting your word out? If the ads were lies, report them to the FTC or FEC. If the ads were effective, isn’t that the whole fucking point?

I think the notion of political advertising is to some extent unethical, because it relies heavily on marketing candidates rather than presenting their positions. It's on thing to have the relevant information made easily accesable and another to push a rhetoric and narrative that is purpusefully manipulative. I would say that an effective ad is manipulative, thus has no place in the conversation of governance.

My main concern - which I haven't seen mentioned as much - is not how this data is being used to target voters with ads. At the end of the day if i can convince you of something with words that's fair game. I am concern with how this information is used to manipulate the voiting system - GERRYMANDERING.

I can ignore political ads. But if they know enough about me to classify me into a party AND control districting that's a problem. I encourage open political discussion, but it seems like that is being exploited and commotatized with big data to our disadvantage. Finally, the big winners aren't gop/dems. It's the people selling them this data and lining their pockets with money.

> it relies heavily on marketing candidates rather than presenting their positions

That's the same thing, only one is said in nefarious tone and then the same is said in neutral tone. If you are trying to convince somebody to change their mind (and that's the purpose of having political ads - if everybody already agrees with you, why waste any time?) you need to say something that would change their position. Which, described in nefarious tone, is "manipulation". Of course, if my team does it, it's "education" instead.


Facebook or any social media has zero influence on districting. It's wholly in the hands of local politicians. If you want it to change, some "manipulative" ads (or other ways of explaining, like pamphlets, in person conversations, articles, books, marches, whatever works) are needed to elect different politicians or cause the current ones to change their actions out of fear of not being elected again if they don't. I don't see any other way of doing it, do you?

Of course, if everybody follows your example and ignores political ads (and other political persuasion content, as being "manipulative"), then any change would be impossible - everybody would be convinced in the same things today as they were yesterday, and everything would remain the same. Maybe some hugely significant and catastrophic events would cause some people to change their minds, but without them being able to persuade their peers, it would be mostly insignificant.

>That's the same thing Yea, I'll conceed that.

>Facebook or any social media has zero influence on districting I don't think facebook or big data are responsible for districting.

I think that access to their data makes district gerrymandering a certainty, rather than some guessing game. In the past I'm guessing they had to go door-to-door to take the temprature on issues and try to figure out where people stand politically. Today some guy with access to this data - that we willingly make available - and a python script can do the same thing in a weekend with a much higher degree of success.

I think this is a more significant consequence of the social media age, than say targeted ads. I can ignore the ads when I'm watching hulu. But I have no power over how it's being used against me. Maybe this an overly reductionist view on something that is far more complex and nuanced, but I'm open to changing my mind.

I don't recall politicians ever having problem with setting up gerrymandering, way before Facebook was a thing. It doesn't have to be exact on the individual level, for its purposes plain old voting patterns data is more than enough.

That sounds interesting and scary at the same time. Can you elaborate some more on that?

1) Yes, there is a certain degree of hypocrisy in commentators lauding the sophistication of the Obama campaign machine and then complaining about the Republican strategy. At the same time, some of the most celebrated aspects of the Obama campaign were not about social media. This is not (or should not be) treated as a partisan issue.

2) Political advertising is beneficial to democracy only if it improves voter's ability to vote in an informed way, which might not be the case.

3) If all competitive candidates require huge advertising budgets, that limits who can run and makes them beholden to sponsors.

4) The particular concern here is the lack of transparency. However much advertising helps inform voters, if voters are also able to understand what advertising strategies are being used they will be more informed. Social media seems particularly opaque with regards to what has been paid for, manipulated or occurred organically.

> Yes, there is a certain degree of hypocrisy in commentators lauding the sophistication of the Obama campaign machine and then complaining about the Republican strategy.

The complaints are generally with respect to a targeted effort to direct people towards sites publishing outright false information[0] as propaganda, and doing so by coordinating with a foreign government.

There is no such claim about the Obama campaign machine - certainly that's not what people laud when they talk about it.

[0] Not misleading or biased, but completely false - as false as the headline "Humans Land On Mars", or "Moon Landing Revealed to be Hoax" would be.

If you want a non-partisan debate, which I do, I think you have to look past this kind of 'who was worse' debate.

Even if there is an answer to 'who was worse', trying to reach a conclusion will just descend into meaningless point scoring.

So, rather than saying that there is or isn't hypocrisy, I guess it would have been better for me to say that I don't care.

> If you want a non-partisan debate, which I do, I think you have to look past this kind of 'who was worse' debate.

You can have a "non-partisan" debate while recognizing that there's an important distinction between applying data to disseminate information in good faith to potential voters and applying data to intentionally disseminate misinformation in concert with a foreign government.

Your typical Democrat enthusiast considers the entire Republican platform “disininformation”.

And vice versa.

That’s truly the root of the problem here: none of the “fanatics” who control the various political organizations on left or the right actually want informed debate. They want to censor the other side entirely.

And while FB is destroying democracy I just got an email from Pinterest with subject "St patricks day (sic) Pins picked just for you" 8 days after St. Patrick's Day.

I guess at least I don't have to worry about Pinterest interfering with elections.

I laughed way too hard at this.

They'll send you their 2016 election picks any day now, watch out!

It's totally anecdotal but I asked a few people about this and everyone had never heard, or seemed particular interested in hearing about Cambridge Analytica.

I mentioned the whole thing about phone contacts and the response was basically "Wow, sucks to be them I guess".

I wonder if it clicked that it probably affects them too.

I am no fan of Facebook. Even though I have an account I barely use it.

But, Facebook sells ads. So, it is not surprising that they want to show off their "influence". I am sure similar language can be found even on cosmetic, electronic etc product "wins".

The only issue here is Facebook trying to hide the page. And, that is the worst thing they can do in the given climate.

Okay, let’s all settle down here with the pitchforks. It is totally reasonable for Facebook to a) sell politics are and b) want to tout their effectiveness. It is even reasonable for them to c) pull the pages down in the midst of this PR nightmare.

Facebook deserves most of what they're getting right now, but this is sensationalist media.

I have a difficult time coming up with a better solution than one: Facebook must be broken up under anti-trust law. Social network share is as dangerous as, if not more dangerous than, market share.

Oh since when Facebook is a monopoly? There are dozens of social networks out there. Even Google Plus exists. You dont have any ground to pull an anti trust on FB.

It is a myth than companies must be absolute monopolies to fall afoul of the law. The Sherman Antitrust Act was specifically drafted to take on politically-powerful groups from which unilateral consumer (user) or supplier (advertiser) defection was not reasonable.

“A Section 2 monopolization violation has two elements:

(1) the possession of monopoly power in the relevant market; and

(2) the willful acquisition or maintenance of that power as distinguished from growth or development as a consequence of a superior product, business acumen, or historic accident” [1].

It would be a difficult, but not impossible, case as is. Facebook’s market power, acquisition history and evidences of abuse and cover-ups would make a legislative extension of antitrust statute to social media perfectly reasonable within the original intent of the law. This is far from a unique opinion [2].

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sherman_Antitrust_Act

[2] https://stratechery.com/2017/everything-is-changing-so-shoul...

Google Plus is kind of irrelevant nowadays in the social media space.

It does not matter, it still exists.

On what legal basis would you recommend breaking them up?

One thing is this article is completely correct:

WHEN MARK ZUCKERBERG was asked if Facebook had influenced the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, the founder and CEO dismissed the notion that the site even had such power as “crazy".

It is indeed "crazy". US voters decided the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Millions of venues were used to hold the debate about it, Facebook included, but in no way unique. Presenting it as if only Facebook mattered is undoubtedly very flattering to Facebook (do you want to advertise your business in the place where decisions about US elections are made, or on some dead trees painted with dirt?!) but is completely insane if you take your head out of the Red Scare promoted by the media, take a breath and give yourself a minute to think and analyze the data.

Of course Facebook, as any advertising platform, brags about how powerful they are. And Facebook specifically has been caught claiming wider audience than 100% of the target demographics (don't have the link handy but wouldn't be hard to find it). But it's just that - bragging.

Anyone selling political ads is selling the ability to influence elections. Why else would a campaign buy any?

I don't understand how using Facebook for political brainwashing is scarier than using it for brand awareness, product marketing etc. It's the same. If Trump used it for his gain then I must say he was just better at marketing. Hilary should have done a better job at selling herself. If Pepsi markets it's product better than Coke to me then I'll choose Pepsi :)

Yes, the data was mined and illegaly sold to Cambridge Analytica, but there are so many other entities who did the same. It's safe to assume that vast majoritybif not all of member data is out there being used/sold unless nobody in your friend list gave permissions to these apps or you have no friends.

> "I don't understand how using Facebook for political brainwashing is scarier than using it for brand awareness, product marketing etc. It's the same."

Setting aside the partisanship for a moment (because I think it's something people should be concerned about regardless of their politics), I think influencing the electorate or the government (or sowing distrust amongst different segments of society) is more likely going to have an effect on my life than influencing which brand of cola sells more unit sales (to use your example). So, yeah, I think it's potentially scarier to use it for "political brainwashing" (again, your words).

Asked about the delisting, a Facebook spokesperson said that “a number of the studies have been archived, but they’re still available at the individual links.” Asked why the “Government and Politics” section had been removed entirely, the spokesperson did not reply.

I’ll just bet they didn’t. “We’re covering our ass like it’s on fire” is probably a bad PR, move, but it’s painfully obvious that’s what’s happening. The funny thing is they’re hurting themselves even more with half-baked apologies. They’re going back to the playbook they’ve used for the last dozen scandals, but this is different.

Facebook the company might survive this, but Facebook the social network is going to die.

Nah. People outside our bubble don't care.

> People outside our bubble don't care

This time, it feels flipped. My Silicon Valley circles repeat that this will blow over in a week. Outside that bubble, wheels are turning for the first time (to my recollection).

On that note, the Facebook stock is marked as a definite "buy". If you see the stock price movement, it's been a boon since 2013. Depending how you see this FB fiasco, it is both a PR disaster, and a great opportunity to "BUY" Facebook stock.

I believe that Zuckerberg will patch-up this mess (for now) and the investors just managed to buy something for 10% cheaper. There is a rule in forex trading: most events' results last 4 days. Perhaps for FB it will last a bit more. But when it comes to stock that's a different game. FB can make the comeback of this 10% in a couple months (tops) and continue being profitable.

Check stock price since 2013. FB stock definitely to continue performing similarly.

[1]: https://www.tradingview.com/chart/FB/r2H0bemr-FB-Facebook-Li...

It’s very naive to believe that past performance is a perfect predictor, and a good way to lose your shirt.

I think you're just seeing two bubbles colliding.

For lack of a better term the New York bubble vs the Bay Area bubble.

It’s a New York, D.C., and London bubble, then, at the very least. (With strong support in Seattle, Dallas and Raleigh, too.)

I’ll throw Melbourne, AU into the bubble mix, and I have friends and family in Britain who recently got off Facebook.

Big bubble.


Yeah, the blue tribe has realized the red tribe has learned how to do big data too, so now using big data for electoral purposes is a huge scandal, and the solution for it - as is solution for literally everything - is more government regulation. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I bet half the people inside the bubble don't care. I don't care, for example.

no one cares sorry. everyone knew what they were getting. you cant blame social media at all really. the internet in general is partisan. ppl flock to platforms that appeal to them. sorry its no highschool. you are no longer forced to hear views you oppose, that is the reality when your an adult. its a huge shame you all dont let it do. advertising in general is to appeal to people.

You don't care, doesn't mean you SHOULD not care. Public apathy from smart people was probably behind what happened in 1930s Germany.

Apathy? A lot of smart people were active supporters of the National Socialists, at least before they started losing the war.

The Ominous Parallels[1] explores this, and the parallels with current American politics:

The Nazis did not gain power against the country’s wishes…The Nazi party was elected to office by the freely cast ballots of millions of German voters, including men on every social, economic, and educational level. In the national election of July 1932, the Nazis obtained 37 percent of the vote and a plurality of seats in the Reichstag. On January 30, 1933, in full accordance with the country’s legal and constitutional principles, Hitler was appointed Chancellor. Five weeks later, in the last (and semi-free) election of the pre-totalitarian period, the Nazis obtained 17 million votes, 44 percent of the total…

In 1933, when Hitler did establish the system he had promised, he did not find it necessary to forbid foreign travel. Until World War II, those Germans who wished to flee the country could do so. The overwhelming majority did not. They were satisfied to remain…

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Ominous-Parallels-End-Freedom-America...

What? There were so many different reasons, and apathy definitely wasn't one of them. You know what was the main driving force though? Anger, anger and resentment. Germans felt treated badly after WWI, the war contributions were extremely high, people were starving, inflation was higher than in Venezuela today. These were the circumstances that shaped NSDAP. Apathy? No, many German smart people were in favor of changes at the beginning.

I simply can't understand all these Nazi analogies all around, as if people had no idea what the Weimar Republic was and all their knowledge of the interwar period is based on some Hollywood movies.

It wasn't just anger. It was also forged by fear of the rising communists by the upper and middle class, and the political chaos of the times. The far right and far left would regularly be in street brawls. Regular people wanted peace and prosperity.

The NSDAP promised law and order, and to improve the economy.

I downvoted your comment, because it just summarily dismisses the role of apathy.

No doubt many people supported the nazis for all the reasons you quote.

But why weren't there mass protests or resistance of any note against all the book burnings and all the targeting of jews in the 30s? The absence of any notable resistance to nazi policies before the war is a strong indicator of apathy.

As a resident of a country that is currently going through ultra-nationalist propaganda, brainwashing and violence against sections of our society, I strongly feel apathy of the masses towards persecuted countrymen is, and has always been, a factor in all such events and can't be so summarily dismissed.

> But why weren't there mass protests or resistance of any note against all the book burnings

Why right now there aren't mass protests against free speech restrictions on university campuses? Because a) a lot of people agree with them and b) people that don't agree with them and want to protest get intimidated and scared into silence (ironically, often by being called "nazis") by threats ranging from being stalked, boycotted, forced out of the job, bullied online to the direct physical violence. See how "free speech week" in Berkeley worked out.

You say "oh, that's different - now it's for the right cause!". Surely, the Germans thought exactly the same. Their cause was stability, economic prosperity, security and restoration of the pride and the glory of German nation. Why wouldn't one - without the knowledge of what followed - disagree with it? They weren't ignorant of the freedoms they are sacrificing - they thought the goal is worth it. Hopefully, now we know better.

> all the targeting of jews in the 30s

Louis Farrakhan is ranting about "the Jews" right now, all the time, has been doing the shtick for years. Still on Twitter and even has the blue checkmark, interviewed, hand-shaked, etc. People still go and take photo with him (yes, including Obama, in 2005). DC city council member just days ago ranted about "Jews controlling the weather". Still DC council member, and his half-hearted apology was shrugged off by his supporters as "we all talk about in private, why can't we talk about it in public?" Why there are no mass protests? Because people think nothing will come out of it, it's just some crackpots bullshitting. German people thought the same. They weren't politically apathetic, they just didn't see the threat and thought the good things Nazis promised (security, stability, order, etc.) are much more important than occasional crackpot mouthing off. They were very wrong, obviously, but they didn't know it back then.

no, that is not really what happened in 30s germany. You had a country in deep economical crisis, and huge political fight for power. Smart people were far from passive, on the contrary they took sides.

No, if you actually read about what actually happened in 1930s in Germany, the government disfunction led to people demanding more powers will be given to the government, to fix things finally and to end the instability and the economic woes. And the careful stoking of hostility between political tribes and fear of each other made people to seek the government as the ultimate arbiter and protector. Which proved to be spectacularly bad idea when it turned out the guy who ended up being appointed as the head of the government, in charge of fixing things, was Hitler, and instead used them to consolidate the power in his own and his party's hands and end the Weimar republic. People weren't passive or avoiding the politics. They just thought the right politics is to elect the right people to the government and give them all the powers. Which has a very spectacularly awful failure mode if after the powers were given turns out those people are not exactly right, but you can't take the powers back anymore.

Almost by definition, for something of that level to happen, someone needs to be very not apathetic...

Ha ha, no. They were into it.

ahh, good ol' Godwin's Law. Politically apathetic people are just like nazis. Just like other non-progressives, right?

You know, that is not true.

Now, in your favor, they have not cared, despite the majority of this info being old, known.

Context matters.

This last election was very highly controversial. I get downvotes for more commentary, and I know why too.

It's OK, but it does make this discussion a bit harder.

Let's just say people have seen more about the ugly parts of politics than usual. The choices they had and why are troublesome too.

The parties both want to avoid accounting for their abuses, and or just working realities, when known are not popular, too.

Given things like this in play, and strong incentives for many "to put blame anywhere else", or onto "those other people", the conditions needed for this information to matter are ripe!

Should be no real surprise.

Many, in my circles, have only casual understanding of the data issues. They appreciate the good, and as long as they get a lot of value out of the products, they will push cares away.

Most are asking great questions, and they are weighing the info they get, trying to understand.

It's more than I have ever seen, despite my own efforts to inform earlier.

What is most disturbing, to me, isn't the interest. That discussion should have happened years ago. "You are the product" means a lot more than many know, and it's not all bad too.

Many will evaluate all of this and make different choices. FB won't be the same for them. FB won't die either, but like the kids did, people will move on, seek alternatives and more agency as to what happens.


The disturbing thing is alphas, influencers linking all of this to every bad, deep state, nefarious actor, prediction of doom they can.

Not good.

It's all fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Every institution is under attacked. Traditional media, entertainment, scientists, police, democratic representatives, intelligence agencies... now our digitally-dependent society is realizing we can't trust the wires. America is becoming schizophrenic.

That’s possibly less of an accident, and more of a strategy.

Adam Curtiss on ‘Oh Dearism’


40bn in lost shares says otherwise

They definitely do, even if you dismiss the ongoing media shitstorm (and you shouldn’t), people have been getting tired of Facebook for a while now. Young people think it’s for graybeards; as soon as nana got on the platform it stopped being cool. Everyone also has the very concrete event of Trump’s election to hold onto, which led to a lot of coverage and understanding of how social media really operates. This is something that’s been pressurized for a while, and now the lid is coming off. Zuckerberg’s non-apologies aren’t going over well either, and the scandals keep coming.

If you disagree, that’s ok, but please actually make an argument or don’t bother replying.

That spokesperson should be ashamed of themselves. Absolutely disgusting.

They're just doing their job. It's company leadership that should be ashamed.

Some people don't believe folks are let off the hook because they are "just following orders." Other people believe that following orders lets people off the hook.

We see this over and over again in every discussion about corporate malfeasance (not to mention war).

It appears you're of the latter mindset while the parent is of the former. Consider not down voting what amounts to a legitimate philosophical difference.

I would say I'm in the middle. It depends on how unethical/bad the orders are.

If they don't follow orders, than there's no statement as opposed to no reply on that issue. The spokesperson's job is to tell the public what they're told to, they likely don't have the information to answer that question if they wanted to.


https://www.google.com/ads/elections/campaign-playbook/mobil... ze/


(lest the implication be misunderstood, it is that "hiding web pages" is a non-story, unless i have missed the authors point. online ads for candidates are still not regulated in the same way as similar ads on "traditional" broadcast media such as TV, radio, cable, satellite. google, twitter, etc. are still open for business.)

Um, yeah. Political campaigns can buy ads from Google. I'm not sure why that would be surprising or objectionable unless you believe all political advertising is bad.

As a European I'm surprised. In my country, every form of political advertising, TV or online, is strictly regulated.

That doesn't say much. It's regulated in the US too, including digital.

What matters (and what is different) is what the specific regulations are.

I think many places it is simply illegal with political advertisement. They use facebook groups though since that is outside the country borders, but I dont see why that would be hard to make it illegal also.

In practice, Citizens United obviated any US regulations on political advertising. A rich patron can pour as much money as s/he desires into advertising on behalf of a campaign, and we don't have a right to know who that person is.

> In practice, Citizens United obviated any US regulations on political advertising. A rich patron can pour as much money as s/he desires into advertising on behalf of a campaign, and we don't have a right to know who that person is.

No, Citizens United didn't do that. That right always existed. If you're a billionaire, you always could purchase TV ads that feature (for example) you talking about how great Candidate Foo is, and why Candidate Foo will be the best thing since sliced bread. That is a fundamental right of free speech in our democracy - the government cannot restrict you from praising or criticizing a candidate. They can restrict you from coordinating with the candidate to make those statements, but they can't restrict you from your own independent speech.

The Citizens United decision ruled that people preserve this right when acting as a group. So instead of one single billionaire purchasing ad spots, a group of people could pool their money and purchase the ad time instead. Or they could launch a crowdfunding campaign. All of that is still perfectly legal as long as the person (or people) running the ads aren't coordinating their efforts with the candidate and the candidate's campaign.

> "Win the moments that win elections."

They aren't subtle about it. I also wouldn't mind as much if the tech industry were politically neutral - but its been shown time and time again that Silicon Valley, where a lot of this power is held, has a very obvious political bias.

Individual or company bias? Does Google discriminated between their customers? I can't recall any political groups complaining Google wouldn't take their money.

There are many complaints Facebook suppressed speech by political groups [1]. Twitter is known for suspending accounts for political speech they deem unacceptable. Google was recently observed ham-fistedly removing search results about guns from Shopping, which was discussed at length on HN and the hilariously incompetent way it was done was source of much entertainment. Google is also pushing out gun-related content from Youtube.

[1] https://www.dailywire.com/news/28313/study-heres-proof-faceb...

please, keep taking your political advice from social media sites and ad networks, and if it turns out to be bad advice, try to sue them. :s

The press is really kicking Facebook's ass lately.

I guess it's because it's newsworty now and gets clicks?

Because, I don't think Facebook was any better 1-2 years ago, but you hardly ever heard about it in this light.

More than that, the traditional press hates Facebook because Facebook is stealing its business. I thought Wired ran a good story about it [1].

[1] https://www.wired.com/story/inside-facebook-mark-zuckerberg-...

Not just traditional press. Facebook also competes with forums and blogs. Somebody who has worked hard to achieve prominence in those formats and venues will naturally feel threatened as they become less relevant. Some of the criticism might be justified, some of it might be sincerely meant, but the (lack of) emphasis and perspective is often driven by that fear. Bloggers' and forum heavyweights' comments about $target should be taken with the same grain of salt as NYT or Wired commentators'.

Do you think it's something people should be concerned about?

Do you think everyone becomes aware of something or changes their mind at the same time?

Would you rather people didn't think it was a concern now?

Do you think the news coverage is outsize compared with your concern?

Yeah, it can be frustrating when others don't seem to be concerned about something you're aware of. And yeah, people are fickle, and for some their concern will fade once there's something else to catch their attention. Does that mean we shouldn't take advantage of the situation now, if it's something you're concerned about?

Ah, it's all good--I'm not particularly fon of Facebook, I just know it won't last long.

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