All of a sudden, Facebook—and perhaps Twitter and Google, too—find themselves at the center of the Russiagate investigation.
You can’t say you didn’t see this coming. Back in January, in its Intelligence Community Assessment on Russia’s attack on the 2016 US election, the American Intelligence Community told us that a critical part of the Moscow-directed effort involved “paid social media users or ‘trolls.’” That attack, which the ICA said was directed personally by President Vladimir Putin, was a “multifaceted” campaign that went far beyond the well-known reports that Russia’s agents hacked into, or obtained through spearphishing, the e-mail accounts of the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta.
In an assessment that resonates with the latest disclosures about Russian involvement with Facebook, Twitter, and other social-media platforms, the ICA noted that the Russians “used trolls as well as RT [the media organization formerly known as Russia Today],” in tandem with the secretive work of an outfit called the Internet Research Agency. And, it added, “The likely financier of the so-called Internet Research Agency of professional trolls located in Saint Petersburg is a close Putin ally with ties to Russian intelligence.”
It’s taken a while for the facts to emerge about how the Russian intelligence services, using a vast army of Internet trolls and “bots,” intervened in the 2016 contest. Robert Mueller, the special counsel named by the Justice Department to look into Russiagate, has demanded that Facebook come clean on what it knows about improper and possibly illegal Russian efforts to use Facebook last year. And Facebook itself, which at first stonewalled congressional investigators, has no choice—faced with subpoenas and search warrants—but to grudgingly tell Mueller what it knows.
For Facebook, and for Mark Zuckerberg, it’s been a halting journey to reveal the extent of Russian meddling across its billion-member platform. After first resisting the notion that Russia, or anyone, could use Facebook in an effort to manipulate the election, calling it “a pretty crazy idea,” Zuckerberg issued a lengthy Facebook Live statement late last week. “I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy,” he said, describing a series of nine steps that he’s ordered the Internet behemoth to undertake to minimize the risk in the future. And he concluded, “We will continue working with the government to understand the full extent of Russian interference.”