Michael MacKay, Radio Lemberg, 04.10.2017
Mark Zuckerberg turned a billion people into unpaid data entry clerks and then weaponized Facebook for Russia. The Internet is supposed to be about using technology for human liberation and for free communication, but the Facebook piece of it has become a medium for Russia to wage information warfare and subvert democracy all around the world.
Prominent in the news now is the way that Russian intelligence services (FSB, GRU, SVR) and Facebook worked together to falsify the United States presidential election that was held on 8 November 2016. But the Russia-Facebook alliance goes back at least to the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which began its military phase on 20 February 2014.
Ukrainian Facebook users have been prolific in posting reports, photos, and video about the Russian invasion of Crimea and of Donbas, and commenting extensively about what was happening in their homeland. Needless to say, the words of Ukrainian Facebook users were less-than-kind when talking about the foreign invaders from Muscovy who had come to Crimea and Donbas to attack them in their homes. When your friends and relatives are killed or injured, when your home is damaged or destroyed, and when you are forced to become a refugee in your own country, you are likely to say very harsh things about the people who did this to you.
At the same time Russian information warriors were posting voluminous fake news, such as the infamous “crucified boy” false report that was first put out by Russian propaganda TV on 12 July 2014. Using huge numbers of “sock puppet” accounts, the Russians amplified fake news to put it at the top of “most viewed right now” lists on social media and news aggregators. The Russian troll army also worked in large numbers to suppress or ban pro-Ukrainian accounts. En masse, they would report to Facebook any posting critical of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as being either “nudity/pornography” or “hate speech” against an identifiable group. It turns out the category of the complaint didn’t matter, as the algorithm used by Facebook responded to the volume of complaints, not the substance of them. Ukrainian accounts accurately reporting the war were punished with banishment, and Russian accounts spreading fake news were rewarded with prominence.
On 13 May 2015, Maksym Savanevsky, co-founder of the Ukrainian Crisis Media Centre, wrote a letter to Mark Zuckerberg, chairman and chief executive officer of Facebook. Maksym Savanevsky illustrated how Facebook had ceased to be a space of free communication for Ukrainians. Facebook was aggressively blocking accounts of Ukrainian activists and patriots, and deleting web sites that were documenting Russian war crimes and human rights violations. The President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, encouraged Zuckerberg to open a Ukraine office, so that Facebook employees who understood Ukraine and its people as well as the nuance of language would be moderating content from where it was being generated.
On 14 May 2015, Mark Zuckerberg hosted a “town hall” meeting at Facebook headquarters. The question about Facebook suppressing pro-Ukraine content received the most votes for consideration. Zuckerberg dismissed the complaint out-of-hand, admitting only to a minor flaw in the algorithm that identified “hate speech” as “nudity.” He ignored the key point that Russia was invading Ukraine, and persisted in defining criticism of Russians for what they were doing as hate speech against an identifiable group. He stuck to his guns and insisted that Facebook would continue to censor Ukrainian Facebook users using Russian-speaking – and Russo-centric – employees working out of a Dublin office. Facebook would not open (and still hasn’t opened) an office in Ukraine, the largest country that is wholly within Europe.
Adding insult to injury, Zuckerberg laughed. He laughed at the cry for help from Ukrainians who only wanted to have their stories heard. The questioner at the Facebook “town hall” laughed, and the Facebook employees laughed right along with Zuckerberg. It was a great joke to Facebook that Internet users in a time of war would take being banned and being censored as the life-and-death issue that it truly is. Maksym Savanevsky had told Facebook why Ukrainians needed to get their story out. He told them about the Heavenly Hundred who were murdered on Maidan by the Yanukovych regime and about the hastily mobilized volunteer battalions that had saved Europe by stopping the Russian invaders in the east. He had told them of the suffering and sacrifice of Ukrainians for their own freedom and for Europe’s security. To that, Zuckerberg and Facebook laughed.
Mark Zuckerberg went on to extend the successful weaponizing of Facebook for Russia’s invasion of Europe in Ukraine to encompass weaponizing Facebook for Russia’s successful falsification of the US presidential election.
In a big chunk of cyberspace, Facebook has turned the Internet promise of liberation and free speech into a reality of captivity and loss of voice. Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn and Tim Berners-Lee and the other Internet pioneers might be looking at Mark Zuckerberg and saying (as the first telegraph message did in 1844): “What hath God wrought.”