Nathaniel Gleicher may well have the toughest job in tech right now.
Gleicher, a former prosecutor with the Justice Department, has been given the unenviable task of ridding Facebook of foreign trolls and state-run disinformation campaigns of the sort that wreaked havoc on the 2016 US presidential election — and threaten to do the same in November.
He stresses that this is a company-wide effort, and that it is no easy feat. With more than 2 billion users worldwide, ferreting out bad actors is akin to finding a needle in a haystack, Gleicher told CNN during his first on-camera interview since taking the job in January. But he is determined to find it.
Sitting in one of the many buildings on Facebook’s vast campus in Menlo Park, California, last week, Gleicher stressed the importance of getting it right.
“Public debate, open elections are the cornerstone of democracy,” he told CNN. “There’s nothing more important than this. This is our highest priority and it’s certainly my highest priority.”
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the job that Facebook has entrusted to Gleicher and his team. The company has faced something of an existential crisis in the two years since Donald Trump won the presidency. The US intelligence community has made it clear that Russia exploited Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms in an elaborate campaign to sow discord in the United States and then attempt to sway the 2016 presidential election.
After a few years of prosecuting cyber crimes at the Department of Justice, Gleicher served on President Obama’s National Security Council. His previous work as a computer scientist and a lawyer gives him an advantage navigating the technology and political realms and helping those two worlds understand each other.
Gleicher said his biggest job at Facebook is bringing the company’s security, policy, and legal teams together into a unified front against disinformation. “There are a lot of different people from different places in the company that need to work together to combat this,” he told CNN. In 2016, Facebook didn’t take an integrated approach to combating disinformation. It’s hoping that changing that will make a difference.
Lessons from 2016
The notion that Russian trolls could amass hundreds of thousands of American followers on Facebook, target them with ads, and pay for it all in rubles caught both tech companies like Facebook and even many in the US government unaware.
Gleicher has the advantage of having come aboard earlier this year, and therefore doesn’t have to answer for the company’s previous missteps.
He appears to have a firm understanding of the societal, political, and cultural implications of everything Facebook does. Despite CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s strong performance during a congressional hearing in April, he has in the past come off unwilling or incapable of understanding the profound impact Facebook has on the world.
It didn’t help that in the days after the 2016 presidential election Zuckerberg dismissed as “crazy” any suggestion that disinformation on Facebook could have swayed the election. He has since said he regrets making those comments, and the company has spent much of the past year trying to prove that it understands the problem.
Gleicher told CNN that although Facebook has always had a robust data security operation, it had until recently focused on “traditional threats,” like hackers stealing users’ passwords. The company, he said, was not prepared for Russian manipulation of information on its platform.
“Information operations is a new kind of threat,” he said. “We have said that we weren’t quick enough to identify this. We know that others have had a lot of trouble identifying this and identify these new types of threats.”
As Gleicher pointed out, Facebook was not alone. The federal government was equally unprepared for the onslaught of bogus accounts and disinformation that plagued Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden once compared the intelligence community’s missteps to the intelligence failures that led to the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. Although the US government observed Russian disinformation campaigns on social media during the revolution in Ukraine in 2014 — and even sent teams to that country to help counter them — it didn’t think such disinformation attempts would be effective against the US, Hayden told CNN earlier this year.
Part of the challenge lies in the fact the federal government does not have a single agency responsible for tackling information warfare. Intelligence officials touted their coordinated approach to election security in a White House briefing last month, but it’s too early to know how successful that effort has been.
Facebook’s move to coordinate its own efforts under Gleicher, though, has led to a few public wins.
Late last month, Facebook announced that it had taken down 652 pages, accounts, and groups that it identified as part of a coordinated disinformation campaign that originated in Iran and targeted countries worldwide. It also found news pages connected to Russia.
Facebook said the campaign originating in Iran included 254 Facebook pages and 116 Instagram accounts that together amassed more than 1 million followers. (Facebook owns Instagram.) Those responsible for creating the pages spent more than $12,000 on advertisements between 2012 and 2017, the company said.
That announcement came about a month after Facebook said that it had dismantled a network of accounts targeting Americans with disinformation and, in some cases, organizing political events in US cities. The company said it suspected those accounts originated in Russia, but could not prove it.
Facebook’s newly proactive and transparent approach to rooting out foreign meddling has earned cautious praise from some of the company’s critics, including Senator Mark Warner, the leading Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Warner said last month he was “encouraged to see Facebook taking steps to rid their platforms of these bad actors,” but said much more work remains.
Although the miscreants behind the campaign uncovered in July used tactics similar to those the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency employed in 2016, Gleicher told CNN that bad actors’ efforts have grown more sophisticated. For example, the trolls used virtual private networks to mask their location and used cell phones that were not linked to a specific country. “They were taking disciplined steps to make themselves harder to be identified,” he said.
Facebook and modern activism
Balancing the need to eliminate disinformation with the desire to foster debate and discussion underscores one of the great challenges facing platforms. “Once [disinformation campaigns are] found, society as a whole is faced with a choice,” he said. “How do you distinguish and how do you act on the nefarious, the inauthentic behavior, without also harming legitimate activism?”
Although Facebook’s terms and conditions require users to provide their true identity in their profiles, Facebook users cannot see who is behind most of the pages they “like.” This anonymity protects activists who may legitimately fear for their safety, and was instrumental in social justice movements like the Arab Spring. But anonymity also allows organizations like the Internet Research Agency to do their work with near impunity.
“I would say anonymity is an essential component of public debate,” Gleicher said. “As we work on combating bad behaviors and bad actors in this way, we’re continually thinking about, ‘What are the consequences that this could have for advocates?’ and ‘How do we ensure that we’re focused on the harmful actors and that we’re not putting barriers in place that prevent advocates from engaging?'”
Gleicher has been grappling with these issues for some time. A decade ago, when he was at Yale, he wrote an academic paper about the debate surrounding anonymous online speech.
The midterm elections are just two months away — and 2020 lies beyond. Not everyone is convinced those elections can be safeguarded, and Gleicher would not rule out the possibility that Facebook will dismantle still more foreign disinformation campaigns in the weeks ahead.
But he remains cautiously hopeful that Facebook’s efforts, coupled with similar steps by other platforms, independent researchers, and government agencies could help prevent a repeat of 2016. It’s an unenviable task, and Gleicher concedes it will not be easy. “There are,” he said, “no silver bullets here.”
Correction: This story previously misstated how long Gleicher was a prosecutor before joining the White House.