Facebook War Room

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Facebook Sets Up 'War Room' To Fight False Information

October 18, 2018 - 5:11 pm

MENLO PARK, Calif. (WCBS 880/AP) -- Facebook on Thursday showed off its new war room, where the company is trying to prevent any more election meddling like we saw in 2016.

A sign that reads “War Room” is taped over a door, but behind lies a nerve center the social network has set up to combat fake accounts and bogus news stories.

“(It) has teams represented from over 20 different parts of Facebook. So you have representatives from WhatsApp, and Instagram, and the data science team, and public policy, and legal, and they’re all here in one room – they kind of filter in and out; it’s about 24 different desks,” said CNBC’s Julia Boorstin. “And they’re in there pretty much nonstop, and what they’re doing is they’re monitoring for suspicious trends on Facebook, and they’re looking for any activity that’s aiming at voter suppression, or spreading fake news, or fake accounts. And together, having them all in one room, it’s easier to shut down that kind of activity.”

Inside the room, dozens of employees stare intently at their monitors while data streams across giant dashboards.

“They do sort of what they call like scenario planning, and they have on the whiteboard a lot of arrows pointing at who you call when; who you have to contact to figure out where to escalate things and how to escalate things – and what they want to figure out and be prepared for is if they see something happen, do they have the policies in place so they can react immediately?” Boorstin said. “The issue is if there’s fake news; there’s some effort of voter suppression, they don’t want it to go viral before they can react.”

On the walls are posters of the sort Facebook frequently uses to caution or exhort its employees. One reads, "Nothing at Facebook is somebody else's problem."

That motto might strike some as ironic, given that the war room was created to counter threats that almost no one at the company, least of all CEO Mark Zuckerberg, took seriously just two years ago — and which the company's critics now believe pose a threat to democracy.

Days after President Donald Trump's surprise victory, Zuckerberg brushed off assertions that the outcome had been influenced by fictional news stories on Facebook, calling the idea "pretty crazy ."

But Facebook's blasé attitude shifted as criticism of the company mounted in Congress and elsewhere. Later that year, it acknowledged having run thousands of ads promoting false information placed by Russian agents. Zuckerberg eventually made fixing Facebook his personal challenge for 2018.

The war room is a major part of Facebook's ongoing repairs. Its technology draws upon the artificial intelligence system Facebook has been using to help identify "inauthentic" posts and user behavior. Facebook provided a tightly controlled glimpse at its war room to The Associated Press and other media ahead of the second round of presidential elections in Brazil on Oct. 28 and the U.S. midterm elections on Nov. 6.

"There is no substitute for physical, real-world interaction," said Samidh Chakrabarti, Facebook's director of elections and civic engagement. "The primary thing we have learned is just how effective it is to have people in the same room all together."

The more than 20 different teams now coordinate the efforts of more than 20,000 people — mostly contractors — devoted to blocking fake accounts and fictional news and stopping other abuses on Facebook and its other services. As part of the crackdown, Facebook also has hired fact checkers, including The Associated Press, to vet new stories posted on its social network.

Facebook credits its war room and other stepped-up patrolling efforts for booting 1.3 billion fake accounts over the past year and jettisoning hundreds of pages set up by foreign governments and other agents looking to create mischief.

But it remains unclear whether Facebook is doing enough, said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters For America, a liberal group that monitors misinformation. He noted that the sensational themes distributed in fictional news stories can be highly effective at keeping people "engaged" on Facebook — which in turn makes it possible to sell more of the ads that generate most of Facebook's revenue.

"What they are doing so far seems to be more about trying to prevent another public relations disaster and less so about putting in meaningful solutions to the problem," Carusone said. "On balance, I would say they that are still way off."

The election war room and its inner workings remain too opaque to determine whether it's helping Facebook do a better job of keeping garbage off its service or if it's just a "temporary conference room with a bunch of computer monitors in it," said Molly McKew, a self-described "information warfare" researcher for New Media Frontier, which studies the flow of content on social media.

McKew believes Facebook is conflicted about blocking some content it already knows is suspect "because they keep people on their platform by sparking an emotional response, so they like they like the controversial stuff. There will always be this toeing of the line about pulling down radical, crazy content because that's what people engage on, and that's what they want."

Facebook defends its war room as an effective weapon against misinformation, although its efforts are still a work in progress. Chakrabarti, for instance, acknowledged that some "bugs" prevented Facebook from taking some unspecified actions to prevent manipulation efforts in the first round of Brazil's presidential election earlier this month. He declined to elaborate.

The war room is currently focused on Brazil's next round of elections and upcoming U.S. midterms. Large U.S. and Brazilian flags hang on opposing walls and clocks show the time in both countries.

Facebook declined to let the media scrutinize the computer screens in front of the employees, and required reporters to refrain from mentioning some of the equipment inside the war room, calling it "proprietary information." While on duty, war-room workers are only allowed to leave the room for short bathroom breaks or to grab food to eat at their desks.

Although no final decisions have been made, the war room is likely to become a permanent fixture at Facebook, said Katie Harbath, Facebook's director of global politics and government outreach.

"It is a constant arms race," she said. "This is our new normal."

(© 2018 WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)