Nine days after Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg dismissed as “crazy” the idea that fake news on his company’s social network played a key role in the U.S. election, President Barack Obama pulled the youthful tech billionaire aside and delivered what he hoped would be a wake-up call.
For months leading up to the vote, Obama and his top aides quietly agonized over how to respond to Russia’s brazen intervention on behalf of the Donald Trump campaign without making matters worse. Weeks after Trump’s surprise victory, some of Obama’s aides looked back with regret and wished they had done more.
Now huddled in a private room on the sidelines of a meeting of world leaders in Lima, Peru, two months before Trump’s inauguration, Obama made a personal appeal to Zuckerberg to take the threat of fake news and political disinformation seriously. Unless Facebook and the government did more to address the threat, Obama warned, it would only get worse in the next presidential race.
Zuckerberg acknowledged the problem posed by fake news. But he told Obama those messages weren’t widespread on Facebook and that there was no easy fix, according to people briefed on the exchange, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details of a private conversation.
The conversation on Nov. 19 was a flashpoint in a tumultuous year in which Zuckerberg came to recognize the magnitude of a new threat - a coordinated assault on a U.S. election by a shadowy foreign force that exploited the social network he created.
Like the U.S. government, Facebook didn’t foresee the wave of disinformation that was coming and the political pressure that followed. The company then grappled with a series of hard choices designed to shore up its own systems without impinging on free discourse for its users around the world.
One outcome of those efforts was Zuckerberg’s admission on Thursday that Facebook had indeed been manipulated and that the company would now turn over to Congress more than 3,000 politically themed advertisements that were bought by suspected Russian operatives.
But that highly public moment came after months of maneuvering behind the scenes that has thrust Facebook, one of the world’s most valuable companies - and one that’s used by one-third of the world’s population each month - into a multi-sided Washington power struggle in which the company has much to lose.
Some critics say Facebook dragged its feet and is acting only now because of outside political pressure.
“There’s been a systematic failure of responsibility” on Facebook’s part, said Zeynep Tufekci, as associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies social media companies’ impact on society and governments. “It’s rooted in their overconfidence that they know best, their naivete about how the world works, their expensive effort to avoid oversight, and their business model of having very few employees so that no one is minding the store.”
Facebook says it responded appropriately.
“We believe in the power of democracy, which is why we’re taking this work on elections integrity so seriously, and have come forward at every opportunity to share what we’ve found,” said Elliot Schrage, vice president for public policy and communications. A spokesperson for Obama declined to comment.
This account - based on interviews with more than a dozen people involved in the government’s investigation and Facebook’s response - provides the first detailed backstory of a 16-month journey in which the company came to terms with an unanticipated foreign attack on the U.S. political system and its search for tools to limit the damage.