Rob Goldman, vice president for ads at Facebook, posted an eight-part thread on Twitter late Friday about his company’s role in Russian disinformation — and quickly caused a firestorm.
In his messages, Mr. Goldman discussed the indictment of 13 Russians and three companies accused of carrying out a scheme to subvert the 2016 election. Facebook was frequently mentioned in the indictment as the main tech tool that the Russians had used to tilt the election in favor of Donald J. Trump.
Mr. Goldman defended Facebook in his tweets, saying that the Russian-bought ads on the social network were not primarily aimed at swaying the vote result. His posts went viral on Saturday when President Trump cited them as proof that Russia’s disinformation campaign was about something other than giving him an election victory.
We fact-checked Mr. Goldman’s eight tweets. Here’s what we found.
“We shared Russian ads with Congress, Mueller and the American people to help the public understand how the Russians abused our system.” Tweet #1
When the Russians’ use of Facebook to influence the 2016 election became public last year, the company said it was sharing the Russian-bought ads with Congress and Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel leading the investigation.
But Facebook did not directly share the ads with the American people. Instead, the House Intelligence Committee released examples of the ads ahead of congressional hearings last November.
“I have seen all of the Russian ads and I can say very definitively that swaying the election was *NOT* the main goal.” Tweet #2
Not according to the indictment.
The grand jury indictment secured by Mr. Mueller asserts that the goal of Russian operatives was to influence the 2016 election, particularly by criticizing Hillary Clinton and supporting Mr. Trump and Bernie Sanders, Mrs. Clinton’s chief rival for the Democratic nomination.
The Russians “engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump,” the indictment said.
Mr. Goldman later wrote in another tweet that “the Russian campaign was certainly in favor of Trump.”
True, but here is some context.
According to figures published by Facebook last October, 44 percent of the Russian-bought ads were displayed before the 2016 election, while 56 percent were shown afterward. Mr. Goldman asserted that those figures were not published by the “mainstream media” — however, many mainstream news outlets did print those numbers, including CNN, Reuters and The Wall Street Journal.
“The main goal of the Russian propaganda and misinformation effort is to divide America by using our institutions, like free speech and social media, against us.” Tweet #4
The indictment does show that Russian operatives used social media — particularly Facebook — to try to sow division among Americans. But to reiterate, the indictment said that the Russians’ goal was to sway the 2016 election toward a particular outcome. That aim was pursued not just through ads, which Mr. Goldman focuses on, but through Facebook pages, groups and events.
“The single best demonstration of Russia’s true motives is the Houston anti-islamic protest. Americans were literally puppeted into the streets by trolls who organized both the sides of protest.” Tweet #5
This needs context.
The protests in Houston in November 2017 were among many rallies organized by Russian operatives through Facebook. While the Houston protest was anti-Islamic, as Mr. Goldman said, he failed to note that the goal in promoting the demonstration was to link Mrs. Clinton’s campaign with a pro-Islamic message.
According to the indictment secured by Mr. Mueller, there were many other examples of Russian operatives using Facebook and Instagram to organize pro-Trump rallies. At one protest, the Russian operatives paid for a cage to be built, in which an actress dressed as Mrs. Clinton posed in a prison uniform.
“The Russian campaign is ongoing. Just last week saw news that Russian spies attempted to sell a fake video of Trump with a hooker to the NSA.” Tweet #6
American intelligence officials have said that Russia has continued to target the American public and that it is already meddling in the 2018 midterm elections. The New York Times also reported earlier this month on an attempt by a shadowy Russian figure to sell stolen American cyberweapons, as well as compromising material on President Trump, to the United States.
“There are easy ways to fight this. Disinformation is ineffective against a well educated citizenry. Finland, Sweden and Holland have all taught digital literacy and critical thinking about misinformation to great effect.” Tweet #7
While Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands have all made efforts to teach digital literacy, those countries are still grappling with how to handle misinformation. A recent survey in Finland found that 67 percent of respondents “think fake news affects Finns’ perceptions on issues ‘a lot’ or to an ‘extreme’ degree.” Officials in Sweden and the Netherlands have also recently warned that fake news poses a threat to their governments.
“We are also taking aggressive steps to prevent this sort of meddling in the future by requiring verification of political advertisers and by making all ads on the platform visible to anyone who cares to examine them.” Tweet #8
After initially dismissing concerns that it influenced the 2016 election, Facebook has announced a series of moves to prevent its future misuse. One of those steps includes verifying political advertisers through a system that combines automated and human fact checkers. The company has also said it plans to use postcards sent by regular mail to verify the identities of American political advertisers. Whether these new measures will be effective is unclear.