August 7, 2018 / 6:21 PM / 4 months ago

U.S. think tank's tiny lab helps Facebook battle fake social media

    By Joseph Menn
    WASHINGTON, Aug 7 (Reuters) - A day before Facebook
announced that it had discovered and disabled a propaganda
campaign designed to sow dissension among U.S. voters, it
exclusively shared some of the suspicious pages with an online
forensics team so busy it hasn't put a nameplate on the door. 
    The Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab is
based in a 12-foot-by-12-foot office in the Washington, D.C.,
headquarters of the nearly 60-year-old Council www.atlanticcouncil.org,
 a think tank devoted to studying serious and at times obscure
international issues.
    Facebook is using the group to enhance its investigations of
foreign interference. Last week, the company said it took down
32 suspicious pages and accounts that purported to be run by
leftists and minority activists. While some U.S. officials said
they were likely the work of Russian agents, Facebook said it
did not know for sure.             
    It fell to the lab to point out similarities to fake Russian
pages from 2016 during Facebook's news conference last week. 
    Facebook began looking for outside help amid criticism for
failing to rein in Russian propaganda ahead of the 2016
presidential elections. The U.S. Justice Department won
indictments against 13 Russians and three companies for using
social media in that election to influence voters. U.S.
President Donald Trump's national security team warned last week
of persistent attempts by Russia to use social media against the
2018 congressional elections as well.             

    OUTSIDE HELP    
    With scores of its own cybersecurity professionals and $40
billion in annual revenue in 2017, Facebook might not seem in
need of outside help. 
    But the lab and Atlantic Council bring geopolitical
expertise and allow Facebook to distance itself from sensitive
pronouncements. On last week's call with reporters, Alex Stamos,
Facebook's chief security officer, said the company should not
be expected to identify or blame specific governments for all
the campaigns it detects.
    "Companies like ours don’t have the necessary information to
evaluate the relationship between political motivations that we
infer about an adversary and the political goals of a
nation-state," said Stamos, who is leaving the company this
month for a post at Stanford University. Instead, he said
Facebook would stick to amassing digital evidence and turning it
over to authorities and researchers.
    It would also be awkward for Facebook to accuse a government
of wrongdoing when the company is trying to enter or expand in a
market under that government’s control. 
    Facebook donated an undisclosed amount to the lab in May
that was enough, said Graham Brookie, who runs the lab, to vault
the company to the top of the Atlantic Council’s donor list,
alongside the British government. 
    Facebook employees said privately over the past several
months that Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg wants to outsource
many of the most sensitive political decisions, leaving
fact-checking to media groups and geopolitics to think tanks.
The more he succeeds, the fewer complications for Facebook’s
expansion, the smaller its payroll, and the more plausible its
positioning as a neutral platform. Facebook did not respond to a
request for comment.  
    
    EXPOSING DISINFORMATION
    The lab was founded by Brookie, a National Security Council
advisor in the last four years of the Obama administration. Ben
Nimmo is a co-founder. He joined after stints as a journalist
covering the Baltic states as they sparred with Russia a decade
ago and as a spokesman for NATO on Russia and Ukraine.
    On a recent visit to the head office, the often-traveling
Washington staff of four were packed around three desks pushed
to the center of the room.
    Aloud and on Slack, the workplace chat room app, they
discussed pending articles they were publishing on the news and
opinion website Medium about disinformation operations in
Brazil, the United States and Pakistan.
    Using its own software and other tools, the team sorts
through social media postings for patterns. Then it adds
geopolitical context to tell stories on Medium about
misinformation campaigns early, before they play out.
    The combination of urgency and analysis has pushed the young
lab to the front line of deciphering state-sponsored and
domestically generated misinformation. Even before the Atlantic
Council created it 2016, the team drew attention in Washington
policy circles and beyond for using crowdsourcing and technology
to challenge the claims of nation-states. It first got attention
using geo-tagged selfies to show Russian soldiers were in
Ukraine, which added to evidence there was no populist uprising
there.
    During the recent Mexican presidential election, the lab
worked with a media consortium, Verificado, that included Al
Jazeera and Mexico's Animal Politico, to debunk wild rumors
about candidates' illicit foreign support, Nazi relatives and
plans to ban junk food. On its own, the lab also rooted out a
paid influence campaigner relying on automated accounts.
            
    "If you wait for something to happen, it's going to be too
late," Nimmo said. "You have to put verified information into
the environment first." 

    
 (Reporting by Joseph Menn; Editing by Damon Darlin and Nick
Zieminski)
  
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