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The war Facebook can't see from its war room

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About a month ago, the New York Times revealed the existence of a conference room inside of Facebook
 
October 18 · Issue #230 · View online
The Interface
About a month ago, the New York Times revealed the existence of a conference room inside of Facebook devoted to fighting election interference. But this was no ordinary conference room … this was a war room. Then under construction, the war room promised to provide a hub for all of Facebook’s efforts to fight election interference around the world. At the time, I mentioned that I would be amenable to visiting the war room, should an opportunity ever present itself.
On Wednesday morning, I joined a couple dozen or so other reporters at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, and after an introductory briefing about the purpose of the war room, got to poke my head inside:
On one hand, the war room is just one of many conference rooms in MPK 20, the company’s Menlo Park, CA headquarters. But it’s larger than average, and has been stuffed with people and electronics equipment. There are desks for 24 people, and the room is ringed with 17 screens, each of which highlights a different stream of information Facebook is monitoring.
Employees look for suspicious spikes in spam and hate speech, in some cases using custom software built for the purpose. They look for efforts at voter suppression, such as falsely telling people that lines are long or that the election has been delayed. (The team recently uncovered one such hoax claiming that the Brazilian election date had been delayed a day due to protests, and swiftly removed the offending posts.)
I hoped that some sort of election-related drama might present itself during my actual visit to the war room — a hot piece of fake news blowing up on everyone’s screens simultaneously, say — but none did. For a war room, it was peaceful. Everyone who was not staring at a screen spoke in hushed tones, though it’s possible that they just didn’t want me to overhear them talking about the war.
In any case, we all wrote up our stories, and some outlets who weren’t invited to the war room hee-hawed at us, presenting our coverage of the conference room as a massive win for Facebook’s public-relations department. Personally I thought it worthwhile to see the room in person, and ask a handful of questions, and tell readers what Facebook is doing there. (In short: bringing team leaders together in close proximity to increase the speed of decision-making during critical times.)
As I noted in my story, the war room was covered in American and Brazilian flags, to reflect the two most imminent global elections. But if things have been relatively quiet on the election-interference front in America, in Brazil the situation is quite serious.
The problem, of course, is WhatsApp. As we were admiring the flags, Brazilian newspaper Folha published an investigation showing that media companies are buying large groups of phone numbers and blasting them with anti-leftist propaganda on the encrypted messaging app. While it’s often discussed as a chat app, WhatsApp has message-forwarding mechanics that strip away the identity of the sender and allow messages to spread virally with little accountability.
Here’s BuzzFeed’s Ryan Broderick on the scheme:
Media firms that supported far-right frontrunner Jair Bolsonaro used Bolsonaro’s supporter database, as well as third-party databases of phone numbers. Some of these agencies were even offering a breakdown of location and income level. The firms then used a service called “mass shooting” to transmit thousands of messages.
Folha alleges that some of these firms purchased contracts for up to 12 million reais ($3.2 million USD). Not only is this an abuse of WhatsApp, it is illegal to do this in Brazil. Companies are forbidden from donating to political campaigns, and they are not allowed to procure a candidate’s supporter database.
While it’s impossible to know — seemingly even for WhatsApp’s moderators — what’s going on inside a private conversation or group — it is possible to monitor public groups. A WhatsApp monitor built by local fact-checking group Eleições Sem Fake shows that the platform is just as full of misinformation as Facebook.
What makes the scheme insidious is that it’s not clear that any of the many screens in Facebook’s war room are capable of capturing the activity Folha described. Misinformation is spreading virally on a platform that almost no one, Facebook included, can see inside.
There are good ideas floating around for how Facebook could make life harder on WhatsApp propaganda artists. In an op-ed published in the Times this week, Brazilian researchers Cristina Tardáguila, Fabrício Benevenuto and Pablo Ortellado offered three ideas: restrict the number of times a message can be forwarded from 20 to five, which Facebook has already done in India; dramatically lower the number of people that a user can send a single message to, from its current limit of 256; and limit the size of new groups created in the weeks leading up to an election, in the hopes that it will stop new viral misinformation mobs from forming.
I’ve come around to the idea that an app should be able to have end-to-end encryption, or viral sharing mechanics, but not both. If mobs are going to organize in democratic elections, it generally ought to be in plain sight, where we can see who’s holding the megaphone. I won’t make fun of Facebook’s war room, however theatrical its presentation, because I think there’s value in disparate teams sitting shoulder to shoulder and sharing their knowledge. But I suspect that those teams will conclude that their colleagues at WhatsApp, through their willful inaction, are undermining their efforts.

Democracy
Facebook `Delighted’ With War Room Response to Brazil Election
Brazil Election Court Boosts Fake-News Fight With Runoff Looming
Facebook Finds Hack Was Done by Spammers, Not Foreign State
Facebook labels African-American, Hispanic, Mexican ads as political
In Facebook’s Effort to Fight Fake News, Human Fact-Checkers Struggle to Keep Up
The Twitter problem: Republicans and Democrats polarize more when they read each other
Who’s Winning the Social Media Midterms?
Inside the race to hack-proof the Democratic Party
Elsewhere
Twitter Won’t Suspend Louis Farrakhan For His Tweet Comparing Jews To Insects
Why Can’t Instagram Get Anybody to Care About IGTV?
A Botnet Used By Russian Trolls Is Still Sitting Dormant On Twitter, And It Promoted Taco Bell And Coachella
Shane Dawson’s Jake Paul series is really about YouTube’s broken heart
Did I Make a Mistake Selling Del.icio.us to Yahoo?
Launches
Sidestepping App Stores, Facebook Lite and Groups get Instant Games
Facebook is bringing back MTV’s The Real World
Takes
Computational Propaganda
Twitter’s Misguided Barriers for Researchers
And finally ...
Facebook Apologizes for Showing Parenting Ads to Bereaved Mother
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and your plans to pivot to video: casey@theverge.com.
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