How Facebook’s Political Unit Enables the Dark Art of Digital Propaganda

Lauren Etter , Vernon Silver , and Sarah Frier :

By all accounts, Facebook has been an indispensable tool of civic engagement, with candidates and elected officials from mayor to prime minister using the platform to communicate directly with their constituents, and with grassroots groups like Black Lives Matter relying on it to organize. The company says it offers the same tools and services to all candidates and governments regardless of political affiliation, and even to civil society groups that may have a lesser voice. Facebook says it provides advice on how best to use its tools, not strategic advice about what to say.

“We’re proud to work with the thousands of elected officials around the world who use Facebook as a way to communicate directly with their constituents, interact with voters, and hear about the issues important in their community,” Harbath said in an emailed statement.

She said the company is investing in artificial intelligence and other ways to better police hate speech and threats. “We take our responsibility to prevent abuse of our platform extremely seriously,” Harbath said. “We know there are ways we can do better, and are constantly working to improve.”

Power and social media converge by design at Facebook. The company has long worked to crush its smaller rival, Twitter, in a race to be the platform of choice for the world’s so-called influencers, whether politicians, cricket stars or Kardashians. Their posts will, in theory, draw followers to Facebook more frequently, resulting in higher traffic for advertisers and better data about what attracts users.

Politicians running for office can be lucrative ad buyers. For those who spend enough, Facebook offers customized services to help them build effective campaigns, the same way it would Unilever NV or Coca-Cola Co. ahead of a product launch.

While Facebook declined to give the size of its politics unit, one executive said it can expand to include hundreds during the peak of an election, drawing in people from the company’s legal, information security and policy teams.