By Jon Swartz
Facebook Inc. says it has fortified its digital defenses to eradicate meddling in elections, and it’s already thwarted new interference attempts from Russian and Iran as a result.
Three operations in Iran and one in Russia were foiled, the company said on Monday. China also tried to interfere in various elections, but Facebook /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB +0.69% was able to find and stop them, Zuckerberg added. In all, 50 operations have been shut down in recent months.
“We’ve gone from being on our back foot to proactively identifying clusters of fake accounts and taking them down,” Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said in a 45-minute conference call with reporters on Monday morning. “We are more than ever confident we preserve election integrity.”
“Part of why I’m confident going into 2020 is that we’ve played a role in defending against interference in every major election around the world since 2016, in France, in Germany, in the EU overall, in India, in Mexico, in Brazil,” said Zuckerberg, who is scheduled to appear on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
With the 2020 presidential election just over a year away, the social-networking giant is ratcheting up its defenses on two fronts: It will clearly label news that comes from state-owned media, and will give greater transparency for the origins of Facebook pages. The company faces withering scrutiny from federal regulators; in July, it agreed to a $5 billion fine from the Federal Trade Commission for its entanglement with third-party data firm Cambridge Analytica and the improper treatment of the data of tens of millions of individuals.
Zuckerberg, who has been a lightning rod of criticism for big tech’s role in collecting vast amounts of information on individuals, as well as Facebook’s unwitting role in voter manipulation schemes during the 2016 presidential election, also took his message to national TV.
In an interview to be broadcast later Monday with NBC News anchor Lester Holt, Zuckerberg said, “Part of growing up for me has just been realizing that it is more important to be understood than it is to be liked.”
As he has done before, Zuckerberg explained during the conference how Facebook has embraced artificial intelligence to detect foreign manipulation campaigns on the company’s global platform of 2.4 billion monthly users.
Echoing a speech last week at Georgetown University, Zuckerberg defended the company as a beacon of free speech and democracy. “People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world -- a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society,” Zuckerberg said.
But he cautioned that Facebook is bracing for more attacks in 2020 than it did in 2016.
Facebook’s elections update, one in a series over the past year, comes amid another FTC investigation over its business practices, a call by presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to break up the company, and a probe by as many as 40 state attorneys general to look into Facebook’s anticompetitive business practices.
Despite the challenges, Facebook investors don’t seem to mind. The company’s stock, up 44% this year, is expected to continue to climb next week when Facebook reports what analysts forecast as strong third-quarter financial results.