As Facebook struggles to contain misinformation before the November 2018 midterms, one thing is clear: They need all the help they can get.
The social networking giant made a pair of announcements this week related to its security efforts: Facebook (FB) - Get Report said they removed 652 malicious accounts, pages and groups connected to Russia and Iran, and also suspended 400 apps as part of an ongoing investigation into data misuse, including an app called MyPersonality.
In the first example, Facebook's head of cybersecurity policy Nathaniel Gleicher wrote in a blog post that cybersecurity firm FireEye (FEYE) - Get Report had tipped them off. In an email to TheStreet, a Facebook spokesperson clarified that FireEye is one of Facebook's threat intelligence partners and sends them reports frequently.
When it comes to inauthentic accounts on Facebook, the scope of the problem is immense. Facebook has touted its success in identifying and removing new suspicious accounts more quickly, but in a May financial filing, it estimated that 3-4% of its monthly active users (MAUs) were fake accounts as of Q4 last year, and as many as 10% of users were 'duplicate' accounts -- defined as accounts "a user maintains in addition to his or her principal account." In either case, that translates into hundreds of millions of accounts.
Facebook has said that it's investing heavily in trying to contain security threats on its platforms, and in advance of the November midterm elections, it's also tapped academics in its quest to understand how fake news spreads through a program called Social Science One.
That might not be good enough. In a post on the national security blog Lawfare, Alex Stamos -- who served as Facebook's chief security officer since 2015 until leaving this month -- painted a dire picture of the U.S.'s preparedness for another election cycle: "Stymied by a lack of shared understanding of what happened, the government's sclerotic response has left the United States profoundly vulnerable to future attacks," Stamos wrote in the scathing post, saying that U.S elections could become the "World Cup" of information warfare. He also advocated for the creation of an independent, defense-only cybersecurity agency in the U.S.
For Facebook, it became clear in its most-recent earnings report that trolls, fake news and data misuse are finally having a material impact, with Facebook CFO David Wehner telling investors that it was spending "billions of dollars per year" on security. Facebook's stock is down 20% since its July 25 earnings report. On Friday, shares were up 1%.
But in beefing up its security, Facebook also faces a conundrum: It desperately needs outside help, but in a post-Cambridge Analytica world, it also can't hand the keys to its data kingdom to just anyone.
Josh Russell, a systems analyst in Indiana who's gained notice as a leading independent chronicler of Russian disinformation campaigns, said he didn't totally buy the news stories about Russian election interference until he went looking himself on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter (TWTR) - Get Report and Reddit. By manually finding accounts, looking at their history, cross-checking activity across platforms and logging his discoveries, Russell began publishing his findings on Twitter and on his own blog.
"The thing is, they put a lot of time and effort into these personas that they create -- and they've gotten a lot better in the past year," Russell told TheStreet, adding that a common tactic of Russian trolls is to spend months posting 'normal' stories, in a process of audience-building, before inserting more divisive political rhetoric. "They've really jumped into both sides of the arguments now; the newest set of accounts have been left-leaning."
Russell's work speaks to a multi-pronged problem that Facebook faces in cleaning up its platform. To appease its critics and reassure investors, Facebook needs to appear transparent in how it handles data. But it also doesn't want to shed more light on its past blunders by opening up its data pipeline completely.
"I'm not going to advocate a bunch of amateurs like me getting access -- you'll wind up with a bunch of yahoos in there. You want to have people you can rely on with a proven track record," added Russell. "But they could be a lot more transparent. We've never gotten a full account list, either on Instagram or Facebook, so everyone has to speculate on what these accounts are."