Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has concluded his two-day testimony in front of the US Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees, leaving a bad taste in all our mouths. Zuckerberg, expertly prepared for his testimony, illustrated that Facebook is an intelligence haul for all types of foreign state actors, non-state actors and illicit crime without admitting the fact. Intelligence appears to be a key word in this episode.
The hearings are focusing on Facebook, its advertising policy, its blocking policy, and the scandal over the Cambridge Analytica and Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. Under questioning, Zuckerberg said Facebook users have “complete control” of the majority of their data. Selling data on 87 million Facebook users to Cambridge Analytica in 2015 was outrageous, illegal and a violation of privacy rights — it was also totally lacking in common sense and intelligence.
Russia is accused of opening fake accounts with platforms including Facebook to manipulate opinions ahead of the 2016 election. Robert Mueller’s February 2018 indictment of 13 Russians accused of election interference mentions Facebook’s role. The Facebook CEO claimed the social media platform is constantly battling “people in Russia whose job is to try to exploit our system… This is an arms race.” Zuckerberg admitted that Facebook cannot guarantee its users their privacy or prevent the appearance of fake news or misleading ads. That’s not smart, as Zuckerberg vows support for “affirmative consent” from Facebook users.
Most Facebook users are intelligent enough to see how their data is being used, as the company’s algorithm picks up likes and dislikes as well as other clicks on the social media platform. This awareness by users appeared before the 2016 US presidential campaign. Corporate attempts to improve the Facebook experience by adding other features to draw out more background on individuals became a regular feature. No wonder potential employers and criminals examine a user’s Facebook page for nuggets of information.
Millions of Facebook users closed their accounts when the news of the selling of personal data to Cambridge Analytica broke. Yet some have returned because, in today’s age, communication and social networks are an important part of being interconnected with the world and family and friends.
Intelligence gathering on Facebook is not new. In 2012, studies showed that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and a host of other social networking platforms were increasingly viewed by intelligence agencies as invaluable channels of information acquisition. But social media is not solely an intelligence gathering tool, as it is also used for propaganda purposes, including the creation of fake identities in support of covert operations. Moreover, social networking can be manipulated to do three things: Reflect opinion trends and channel mass political action; provide actionable tactical intelligence; and enable highly effective — yet highly controversial — security operations against targeted groups.
The point is that the social media sphere is still in its embryonic state. The advent of Facebook and other platforms without self-regulation illustrates a naivety about how the world really works. Regulations on advertising may help. The Honest Ads Act in Congress would require companies like Facebook to keep a public file of all ads bought on their platform by groups spending more than $500, as well as track when the advertisements appeared and how many people saw them. The proposed rule would also require online platforms to “make reasonable efforts” to ensure that foreign nationals aren’t buying ads to influence elections. Other regulations may be on their way to limit Facebook.
To be sure, there is a difference between social media intelligence and social media monitoring. There is a vast amount of data being generated by social networks every single day. Many companies monitor the data for information that impacts them; for example the number of mentions or the sentiment toward their brand. Social media monitoring is absolutely essential for brands, big and small. This data is collected from social network sites via a feed known as an application programming interface (called an API for short). By itself, this data doesn’t represent social media intelligence. But, once the data is analyzed for trends, the intelligence collection threshold is crossed. Information is power, as we all know.
Overall, Facebook and Zuckerberg are the tip of the iceberg of a bigger issue of how social media plays a role in users’ lives and how those lives are being manipulated by a host of actors, from Facebook to other actors with hostile intent in cyberspace and in today’s society. In addition, it is imperative that the management of Facebook and other social media platforms fully understand the data that is being collected on the user, where the fine line between social media monitoring and intelligence gathering becomes a gray area. Being alert to your cyber-profile helps protect individuals from Facebook’s steep learning curve and lack of intelligence about how the real world works.
- Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington, D.C.