Culture

Facebook's Russian Troll Problem Just Got Worse with Revelations of Instagram Coverup

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When Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff— rated as the best company to work for in America and the best CEO respectively—is astounded by Facebook’s behavior, it’s serious. He’s pointing out what’s becoming a pattern for Facebook: constant corrections and revisions of prior statements. In other words, coverup.

 

Benioff’s Twitter post refers to an article in Wired about a researcher from Columbia University, Jonathan Albright, who discovered something surprising while analyzing how political trolls have been manipulating social media.

While reviewing Facebook’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last fall, Facebook’s general counsel told Senator Dianne Feinstein that 1.8 million people had followed at least one Facebook page associated with the Russian propaganda group Internet Research Agency (IRA). But, surprisingly, he made no mention of how many followers these trolls had on Instagram, Facebook’s photo-sharing app.

Facebook said it had removed 170 Instagram accounts linked to the IRA, but made no mentions of followers. Albright then searched for those accounts and found 27 of them, using data from congressional exhibits and media mentions. He analyzed these 27 sites and discovered they had almost 2.2 million followers combined. But that was only for 27 accounts, about 15 percent of the accounts that Facebook said were removed. So how many followers did all of the Instagram accounts from the IRA have?

Facebook won’t say. “We did not calculate the volume of people who followed at least one Instagram account associated with the Internet Research Agency,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. When asked why they haven’t calculated it, the spokesperson said, “We have not been asked to provide that information.”

Wired notes, “The claim that Facebook was never asked to provide information on how many people followed these accounts is bold given Feinstein’s question in the fall did not exclude Instagram.” Feinstein asked, “For the accounts your companies have identified as linked to the Internet Research Agency (IRA): How many people followed these accounts?”

Albright, the Columbia researcher, can’t determine how many of the 2.2 million Instagram followers of those 27 accounts he found were fake, or how many people followed more than one account, in order to calculate the total number of individual followers. But it’s very suspicious that Facebook has refused to provide a number at all.

Facebook has minimized its Instagram impact before. When it admitted it sold 3,000 Facebook ads to the Russian trolls in October, it did not include Instagram in its report. It was only after a reporter asked Facebook if any of those ads appeared on Instagram that the company added a line to an earlier blog post, admitting that the Russians also used Instagram.

So, it’s looking as if Instagram is an even bigger problem than Facebook. Based on Facebook’s testimony, the Russians’ 170 Instagram accounts were larger than the 120 hosted pages on Facebook. And, as Wired points out, “The Instagram accounts shared 120,000 pieces of propaganda content, compared to the 80,000 pieces of content on Facebook. Facebook estimates that Instagram content reached 20 million people, but the company has never commented publicly on how many followers those accounts received.”

That could be another 30 million people that Facebook is covering up, meaning the problem is more than twice as bad as has been reported. It appears that Facebook is constantly evading, omitting, under-reporting and under-communicating.

Even when they announce some help, they seem to evade. They announced late last year that users could check to see if they followed any of the pages from the IRA. But they’ve hidden the portal well and users need to take the initiative to find it to check. Contrast this with Twitter emailing the 1.4 million users who were exposed.

So, what are we to conclude here? Facebook consistently has under-reported or hidden information from Congress, the press, and its users about how badly it’s been gamed by Russian trolls. They’ve been covering up the true extent of the problem. And for a company with some of the brightest engineers in Silicon Valley, it’s ludicrous that they claim they don’t know. You can bet they know exactly how bad the problem is and they’re just not saying.

When Facebook loses CEOs such Marc Benioff, they are in real trouble. It’s not so much because of the original act, it’s the coverup. And we know from the past that the coverup is usually worse than the crime. I suspect that the true depths of this problem are much deeper than anything that’s yet been reported.