Shadow Government

It’s Time for the State Department to Stop Throwing Money at Facebook

We need to demand accountability from social media companies — and from U.S. diplomats.

Journalists at the Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas on Oct. 13, 2015. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
Journalists at the Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas on Oct. 13, 2015. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

The use of social media by foreign agents to destabilize the 2016 U.S. presidential election has received increasing attention over the past few months. As we learn the extent of Russia’s manipulation on all social media platforms, it is time for the Donald Trump administration to make some tough choices about public diplomacy, and the use of Facebook in particular.

One of the most eye-opening moments of my time as the deputy assistant secretary for digital strategy at the U.S. State Department occurred on a trip to the country of Georgia, aimed at helping the government build its digital capacity to better serve its population. Our message was the same advice we’d given to countless governments: Focus on Facebook. It was the dominant player. Elites tended to use Twitter. Google ads were worth it if you had the money. But for governments wanting to reach real people on a global scale, Facebook was the scalable, smart solution. The government of Georgia was doing everything right: great content produced by a small team. But what we learned was that their efforts online were being systematically thwarted by the Russian aggression they saw on their borders and in their economy. Incendiary and often fake content being posted by RT, Sputnik, and pro-Russia nongovernmental organizations in the country would often outshine responsible content. The lack of engagement on their posts meant the people of Georgia simply weren’t seeing what their government was telling them because it wasn’t showing up in their feed. They were seeing only the criticism coming from outside groups — and that’s what they believed. Little did I know I’d soon see the same tactics in my own country.

At the State Department, Facebook was and still is a central feature of U.S. efforts to advance diplomacy through social media. We reached 30 million people every day on our platforms. We honed and targeted our messages to make sure American ideas were represented in the local context of every embassy in the world. It is one of the most useful and cost-effective instruments of American power and promoting our ideas. Every American embassy in the world has an account — more likely multiple accounts. We aren’t alone. In my time at the State Department, use of social media went from being an innovative American concept of public diplomacy to standard fare. Almost every foreign government — save a handful — have a presence on Facebook and their embassies use Facebook as a primary source to communicate. To be sure, we used other platforms, but Facebook was a must.

Facebook was a willing partner in a way that outpaced other platforms. The Facebook team innovated in ways relevant to public diplomacy professionals and that other social media sites did not: They built trainings and developed tools that made our lives easier. They promoted democratic participation in elections around the world by hosting debates. After all, we shared a common goal: In 2014, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made it his mission to connect the world, and diplomats championed the idea of a space where people could connect outside of the confines of restrictive and hostile governments and social constraints.

But these new opportunities to convene groups and discuss big ideas came with a downside. The Islamic State was using social media tools to recruit. The Syrian Electronic Army was hacking a revolution. Oppressive governments were arresting people for posts on private groups. Although our diplomatic objective was to connect people to each other, we had to acknowledge that Facebook was the essential middleman. Through its powerful algorithms, Facebook was deciding what people saw. By Facebook’s own statistics, the average Facebook user receives 300 pieces of content in their network each day, but they only look at 30. Deciding what goes at the top made Facebook a very powerful editor.

Then came Ukraine. We championed a global effort to unite Western governments through social media support for the pro-democracy protestors there — but behind the scenes we watched as fake posts about illegal immigration sought to justify the presence of Russian soldiers in the Crimea. We read accounts of troll farms and heard from foreign governments that once saw Facebook as a key tool for communicating and were now being virtually buried in the deluge of fake content.

We didn’t stand idle. We made efforts to counter the fake news we saw but had to face facts: Would the U.S. government really be seen as a credible arbiter of news and information in Eastern Europe? Entities like Voice of America moved forward with new programs and targeted efforts, but we moved too slowly. Russia knew all of the tricks we knew. They knew how to promote content, but they were also willing to pay in ways Western governments answering to taxpayers could not. They also didn’t just pay for ads. They paid for people to create fake personas. They took over floundering NGOs that seemed legitimate and promoted content through them.

After my trip to Georgia, I came back and sounded an alarm bell inside the State Department: The Russians were using Facebook to undermine Georgia’s democracy, just like we’d seen in Ukraine, and we could bet they were doing it elsewhere. Our top diplomats were receptive — after all, they were hearing it from top diplomats in the region. But they didn’t understand Facebook and algorithms. I was talking to them about propaganda when they were talking troop movements and constitutional crises. It just didn’t make it to the top of the priority list. I also went to Facebook. I was passed down the chain until finally I sat down with a representative in Europe. I was told that Facebook was egalitarian and that algorithms didn’t judge. Anyone could post anything, anyone could buy ads, and the community would be the arbiter of truth. In Facebook’s defense, I didn’t have a solution, but I knew we needed the company’s help. Whether it be in the State Department or at Facebook, there was interest and concern, but not much clarity as to what step to take next.

Hindsight is 20/20, and we now know that we all should have done more, but it isn’t too late to make the big policy decisions that need to be made about the future of diplomacy, the use of Facebook in particular, and social media more generally. Surely, if we suspected that a major weapons system was manipulated and used against the United States to turn missiles toward Peoria instead of Pyongyang, we’d cancel the contract, cut ties, and seek legal action — regardless of whether the company knew it was happening or not. But cutting ties with Facebook isn’t even a question right now. In fact, ad buys on Facebook and Google are increasing throughout the State Department even in the wake of these revelations, because embassies need to reach people.

The problem in this case is that diplomats need Facebook more than it needs them. The fact is that in the age of digital commerce, governments aren’t their biggest customers. But asking Facebook to shift gears for the good of humanity isn’t enough. A policy decision needs to be made. When it comes to diplomatic interests, do the fake accounts, manipulation, and bad actors on the platform matter more than the millions upon millions of daily users who have the potential to see American policy ideas? After all, these users also buy American goods, watch American movies, and benefit from our science and education systems.

In September, U.S. President Donald Trump announced his intention to nominate Irwin Steven Goldstein as under secretary for public diplomacy at the State Department. He would be a key player in the effort to push back against Russian disinformation efforts around the world and in the United States. I would ask him three things:

First, that he support a series of formal State Department working groups on Russian disinformation and computational propaganda. There are informal meetings, but typically a formal working group is convened in support of a broader government effort to combat this kind of affront to our democracy. The group should look at questions of use for diplomatic purposes, if the institution is poised to combat the attacks, how social media companies can be allies in the effort.

Second, that he advocate to the secretary of state and the National Security Council for a standing interagency policy committee on the same topics that would include cybersecurity, intelligence, homeland security, and diplomatic experts from throughout the government. The truth is that American democracy has been attacked, and our allies have been attacked, using platforms owned by American companies. Without a full assessment and plan of action from the White House, nothing will change. If leaders aren’t willing to fix it, they shouldn’t be given the job.

Third, that he commit to suspending State Department spending on all social media platform ads until such time as a comprehensive approach can be determined. The taxpayers at least deserve a conversation and a justification for this expenditure, and it would provide the guidance needed for our embassies around the world.

Social media was a game-changer for diplomacy. Its benefits can’t be underestimated. We’re connected in ways we’ve never been connected before. We have created communities that didn’t exist previously. We owe a great deal of that opportunity to Facebook. In my time in government, diplomats rushed to Silicon Valley to meet with tech leaders and to celebrate these advances with the strong encouragement of the State Department, but we didn’t do enough to address the downsides. When we did ask for help from social media companies around issues such as Islamic State recruitment, we got it, but we didn’t do enough to educate these companies that their platforms could be handmaidens to the destruction of democracy. It’s time to take responsibility for what we did and what we didn’t do. We also need to demand accountability from Facebook and other social media companies, but stop short of placing the responsibility for the solution solely in their laps.

Moira Whelan is the director of democracy and technology at the National Democratic Institute. She previously served in the U.S. State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. She served on the staff of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security when the 9/11 Commission Report was released. Twitter: @moira