posted at 9:21 pm on April 27, 2017 by John Sexton
Facebook released a report today on “information operations” connected to the 2016 election. The report concludes that while such operations did take place and may have been directed by Russia, their reach was very small. In fact, the report says so-called “false amplifiers” reached just 1/10th of 1 percent of overall civic engagement on Facebook.
The report opens with Facebook’s commitment to fight “subtle and insidious forms of misuse” including “attempts to manipulate civic discourse and deceive people.” The paper then turns to definitions of terms including “false amplifiers.”
Part of our role in Security at Facebook is to understand the different types of abuse that occur on our platform in order to help us keep Facebook safe, and agreeing on definitions is an important initial step. We define information operations, the challenge at the heart of this paper, as actions taken by organized actors (governments or non-state actors) to distort domestic or foreign political sentiment, most frequently to achieve a strategic and/or geopolitical outcome. These operations can use a combination of methods, such as false news, disinformation, or networks of fake accounts aimed at manipulating public opinion (we refer to these as “false amplifiers”).
The paper further defines false amplifiers as “coordinated activity by inauthentic accounts with the intent of manipulating political discussion.” The paper clarifies that in most cases this activity is not automated but is carried out by a group of people working in coordination through fake accounts and planned reactions to news or other information.
Eventually, the paper turns to the 2016 election as a case study. It outlines a series of steps in which information hacked from non-Facebook accounts was then spread using fake accounts on Facebook to amplify awareness of the material until it began spreading more organically:
Facebook conducted research into overall civic engagement during this time on the platform, and determined that the reach of the content shared by false amplifiers was marginal compared to the overall volume of civic content shared during the US election.
In short, while we acknowledge the ongoing challenge of monitoring and guarding against information operations, the reach of known operations during the US election of 2016 was statistically very small compared to overall engagement on political issues.
A footnote quantifies the amount of false amplification taking place between September and December. “The reach of the content spread by these accounts was less than one-tenth of a percent of the total reach of civic content on Facebook,” the report says.
The report says it can’t be definitive about who was behind these information operations but says “our data does not contradict the attribution provided by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence in the report dated January 6, 2017.” In other words, nothing contradicts the Intelligence Communities statement that Russia was behind the operations.
It’s worth noting that progressive outlets like Think Progress are covering the information in the report without mentioning Facebook’s conclusion that the amount of activity was minuscule. Given how much importance some have assigned to the Russian information operation in last year’s election, it seems important to point out the true scale of what happened.