One of the big rules on Facebook is that you have to use your real name. This policy has created some controversy over the years, since it makes life harder for some activists, and crime victims, and (most famously) drag queens. But Facebook has always said that the service works so well because you can trust that the person you’re talking to is actually your friend or family member, and not someone who is faking their identity to influence you toward some malign purpose.
If you break that rule, you are engaging in what the company calls “inauthentic behavior
,” which it defines as “the use of Facebook or Instagram assets (accounts, pages, groups, or events), to mislead people or Facebook:
- about the identity, purpose, or origin of the entity that they represent
- about the popularity of Facebook or Instagram content or assets
- about the purpose of an audience or community
- about the source or origin of content
- to evade enforcement under our Community Standards.”
One thing you can do when public opinion turns against you is hire a phalanx of lobbyists and public relations people to make the case for you in Facebook’s name, and the company has done just that. The company spent about $81 million on lobbying between 2010 and 2019
, and has increased its spending over 2019 levels again this year.
Another thing you can do, though, is to hire a bunch of people to defend you in someone else’s name. Broadly speaking, this practice — masking the true sponsor of an idea to make it appear as though it originates from average citizens — is called astroturfing, and it has a long history. The Wikipedia
page entry for astroturfing
notes that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
begins with Cassius writing fake letters from “the public” to convince Brutus to assassinate the title character, and the idea has inspired the business community ever since.
For example, in 2011, Facebook paid a PR firm called Burston-Marsteller to plant negative stories about Google in the US media
. The idea, which was based on the very-funny-in-retrospect notion that an all-but-incomprehensible Gmail feature called Google Social Circle
might pose a threat to Facebook, was to scare everyone about the privacy implications of … whatever Google Social Circle was. But then Facebook got caught and apologized and we didn’t hear a lot about Facebook-led astroturfing for a long time. (Also Google Social Circle went the way of all Google social products and rapidly faded into obscurity.)
Facebook is working behind the scenes to help launch a new political advocacy group that would combat U.S. lawmakers and regulators trying to rein in the tech industry, escalating Silicon Valley’s war with Washington at a moment when government officials are threatening to break up large companies.
The organization is called American Edge, and it aims through a barrage of advertising and other political spending to convince policymakers that Silicon Valley is essential to the U.S. economy and the future of free speech, according to three people familiar with the matter as well as documents reviewed by The Washington Post.
According to Romm, American Edge is set up to ”navigate a thicket of tax laws in such a way that it can raise money, and blitz the airwaves with ads, without the obligation of disclosing all of its donors.”
Might that mislead people about the identity, purpose, or origin of the entity that American Edge represents? What about the source or origin of the content it produces?
The behavior … it feels somehow … inauthentic. At least to me.
Of course, one reason why these groups exist is that rival companies fund advocacy campaigns of their own to undermine their enemies. And Facebook, to its credit, takes the unusual step of listing the advocacy groups to which it contributes on a public page
alongside its lobbying disclosures. Those groups, though, typically don’t list their donors after every ghostwritten op-ed.
David Espinoza appeared unhappy when Arizona joined scores of states investigating Google last year. The Phoenix-based owner of a shoe-and-leather store wrote in a local newspaper he was “amazed and a little dumbfounded” by regulators’ campaign to “change how digital platforms operate.”
“The current system is working for small businesses, and as the old saying goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he wrote.
But Espinoza’s words, published in September by the Arizona Capitol Times, weren’t entirely his own. They were written on his behalf by an advocacy group that’s backed by Google and other tech behemoths, reflecting Silicon Valley’s stealthy new attempts to shape and weaponize public perception in response to heightened antitrust scrutiny.
Romm goes on to explain that Google, Facebook, and Amazon are all funding advocacy groups that are engaging in letter-writing campaigns, polling, and placing op-eds in an effort to shift the conversation — often without any fingerprints from the companies themselves. This is made possible by an arrangement in which the advocacy groups take a huge portion of their funding from these companies, implement a variety of strategies designed to help those companies, and then swear that there is no connection between those two things.
None of this is new or unique to the tech industry, of course. But at a time when conspiracy theories are dominating the news, it feels worthwhile to point out a conspiracy that’s actually real: a group of giant corporations working in the shadows to manipulate public opinion without always disclosing their involvement.
It’s stuff you largely couldn’t do on Facebook. But you can do it if you are Facebook.