Facebook isn’t consulting the experts to fight Russian election meddling on its platform

One man show.
One man show.
Image: Reuters/Stephen Lam
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There’s a crop of experts in Washington, DC with decades of experience in running campaigns and writing legislation, who are trying to keep America’s elections free and fair.

They can be found at Democracy 21, founded by veteran campaign-finance lawyer Fred Wertheimer; at the government transparency group Sunlight Foundation; at Issue One, which aims to keep outside groups from hijacking elections; in the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign donations; and the at the Campaign Legal Center, which hopes to give regular Americans more of a voice in elections. Outside the capital, New York University’s Brennan Center looks at voting rights and elections.

As Facebook grapples with how Russia may have used its platform to influence the US election, however, it hasn’t reached out to a single one of these organizations, representatives from the groups told Quartz this week. A Facebook spokesman said he had no more information to offer than was already public on the situation.

Facebook said on Sept. 6 that it had uncovered $100,000 worth of political advertisements that violated its policies and were bought by accounts linked to a Russian troll farm. On Sept. 21, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced a series of planned changes to make sure “the company is a force for good in democracy.” The proposals come as some members of Congress are pushing for more regulation.

However, in developing these plans, Facebook seems to be relying entirely on its own in-house talent. And that, campaign-finance experts believe, is a mistake.

“I know they have very smart and capable lawyers,” Ann Ravel, a former commissioner on the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and a long-time advocate for more disclosure of political ad funding, said in an emailed response to questions. “But many issues relating to the FEC and campaign finance laws are nuanced and complicated, as it’s a specialized area.” Even if Facebook figures out how to comply with campaign finance laws and any new rules, it may be “insufficient to mitigate the negative impacts” the company is having on the democratic process.

Zuckerberg’s changes don’t address several crucial questions. Among them are how public the information about who is buying political ads will be, how the company will identify the real buyers of ads when an intermediary is used to buy them, and what it will disclose about how much Facebook profits from the ads.

John Wonderlich, the executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, described himself as “first surprised and happy, then annoyed” by the changes Zuckerberg detailed. “They have not figured out the thorny details,” he said. “If they had more expert advice, I’d expect that their announcement would have shown more sophistication in dealing with the complex distinctions inherent in disclosing campaign related activity.” Unless this is “entirely a public relations exercise,” Wonderlich said, they’re going to have to hire outside experts.

“Any argument that they can solve this by themselves simply doesn’t hold up,” said Wertheimer. “They’re going to have to cooperate and understand that this is not simply a question just for them, it is a question for the country.”

Facebook’s “go-it-alone” strategy looks like a case of Silicon Valley naiveté, in which executives with little or no outside expertise propose technology-centered solutions to complicated problems, from poverty to education. It is reminiscent of one of Facebook’s most ambitious, high-profile failures—the “Internet.org” project, which aimed to give people in developing countries free internet access, but only to selected websites.

Hatched in the “sunny opportunity factory” of Silicon Valley, as Wired witheringly called it, Internet.org failed because it didn’t anticipate that poor people would demand the same full access to the internet as rich ones, or that no country would want most citizens’ internet access controlled by a foreign entity. Ultimately, the backlash was so fierce that critics in India, for example, compared Zuckerberg’s argument that his project and net neutrality (the principle of unfettered and equal access to all types of content) could co-exist with arguing that “freedom and slavery can coexist.”

What’s on the line now isn’t just internet access in developing countries (an important issue on its own)—it is the stability of democracies around the globe, and how easily foreign governments with nefarious motives can exploit platforms like Facebook.

“This is much bigger than Facebook,” said Wertheimer. “This goes to the heart of the integrity of our democracy, and it is not going to be left in the hands of private companies.”