What a difference a year makes. When Facebook was first confronted with the possibility that fake news and propaganda on its platform may have swayed the election for Donald Trump, just days after the candidate’s surprise victory, CEO Mark Zuckerberg strongly denied the idea, calling it “crazy.” Asked whether the social network creates filter bubbles, which lead to political polarization, he defiantly asserted: “All the research we have suggests this isn’t really a problem.”
Almost 12 months later, with the company’s executives sitting in the hot seat and taking tough questions from newly assertive members of Congress this week, the landscape has completely changed. Facebook’s general counsel, Colin Stretch, told the committee that up to 150 million Americans may have been exposed to Russian propaganda via misleading and deceptive posts promoted by accounts linked to the Kremlin.
That’s quite a leap in less than a year. Like the stages of grief or addiction recovery, Facebook’s response has gone through several cycles, from denial to concern (plus denial) to minimizing the problem to conceding that it’s not such a small problem to admitting that it’s a big deal to conceding that it’s a real problem but maybe not quite a BFD. Even given the fact that it certainly took time for Facebook’s army of engineers to research the problem on its back end, its denial of the problem, as recently as July, seems disingenuous if not deceptive.
The company only seemed to disclose the true scale of the problem when prompted by social media analyst Jonathan Albright last month. On October 6, Facebook disclosed that an estimated 10 million people saw such Russian-sourced ads on the platform. Almost immediately, Albright claimed that he had data indicating the audience was more than double that number if regular Facebook posts were counted. The company contacted him to discuss his research and, to his dismay, had “scrubbed from the Internet nearly everything–thousands of Facebook posts and the related data–that had made the work possible,” reported The Washington Post.
The company was also less than candid about the presence of Russian-linked propaganda on Instagram. When Fast Company‘s Alex Pasternack presented it with evidence of such posts on Instagram, the company said it was looking into the matter before suddenly disclosing on its blog that at least 5% of the Russian propaganda it had found appeared on Instagram.
Here’s a handy timeline of Facebook’s responses to the crisis, ranging from its claims that it had found zero evidence of such Russian-linked political posts and ads on its platform to its eventual disclosure that up to 150 million Americans may have seen such propaganda. Click here to see full screen.