Facebook grilled by UK Parliament despite Zuckerberg’s absence

It’s becoming a cliché in public hearings: the empty chair with the name of a senior executive who should be there answering questions but has chosen not to attend. Congress did it when Google refused to send CEO Sundar Pichai to a hearing in August, and a multi-governmental hearing in Britain into Facebook’s transgressions did it on Tuesday with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, making sure a chair with his name on it was prominently positioned at center stage for the TV and newspaper cameras. (Facebook VP of Public Policy Richard Allan was questioned in his place.) There was also a predictable amount of grandstanding to go along with the dramatic accoutrements, with MPs and senior ministers from Britain, Canada, Argentina, and several other countries, complaining about Facebook. “Our democratic institutions have been upended by frat-boy billionaires from California,” Canadian MP Charlie Angus said.

The theatrics actually began even before the UK hearing, when Damian Collins, the head of the committee looking into the spread of misinformation and the Cambridge Analytica scandal, used a little-known legal gambit to compel an American businessman, Ted Kramer, to turn over documents he had on his laptop. Kramer was escorted to the House of Commons by the Serjeant-at-Arms (the guy who usually holds the ceremonial mace) and forced to hand over the files, including emails and other documents related to a lawsuit between his company and Facebook (Kramer has since alleged that UK authorities may have been tipped off to his whereabouts by Guardian reporter Carole Cadwalladr, who has so far declined to comment). Collins said the committee may even publish parts of the documents at some point in its investigation, possibly as soon as next week, despite the fact that they have been sealed by a California court.

ICYMI: A reporter asked for 20 years of lottery winner data. After analyzing the records, he noticed something unusual.

So after all that drama, do the documents contain any smoking gun proving Facebook’s guilt, either in the Cambridge Analytica scandal or in the proliferation of fake news? So far the biggest stick that has emerged from the files is the fact that an unnamed Facebook engineer reportedly told his superiors at the social network in 2014 that unknown entities using Russian IP addresses were accessing as many as three billion data points a day. Allan, however, told the committee that “any information that you have seen in that cache of emails is at best partial, and at worst potentially misleading.” Facebook later provided copies of the emails showing that the engineer in question misunderstood what he was looking at; the data was being accessed by users of Pinterest, and it was more like six million data points, not billions).

Whether the Kramer documents reveal anything, the issue of when and how much Facebook knew about Russian agents using the platform to spread disinformation is a fairly crucial question for regulators. An internal report put together by the social network’s security team as recently as last year stopped short of attributing any of the suspicious behavior on the platform to the Russians, except to reference, obliquely, US intelligence agency reports. Alex Stamos, the former head of security for Facebook, has said Facebook executives didn’t shut down any investigations or scrub any reports. But it is increasingly obvious that the company downplayed that influence, and only admitted later to knowing about it because Zuckerberg wound up on the hot seat in front of Congress.

The British parliamentary committee is also interested in Kramer’s claim that the social network didn’t just allow apps like his to access to the “friend graph” data of users, it actively promoted that access. This is less of a smoking gun than it might seem, since the API access Kramer and Cambridge Analytica had was commonplace at the time. Facebook believed that making it easier for users to find each other on various apps and services was a positive thing (part of Zuckerberg’s stated mission to make the world more connected) and that the best way to do that was to allow those services to see who else in a user’s friend group also used an app or service. Who could possibly have known that this friend data would be used to create psychographic profiles in an attempt to convince people to vote for a former reality-TV star with a terrible track record?

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ICYMI: Newspaper investigates after veteran reporter accused of making up sources

Here’s more on Facebook, the UK, misinformation, and Cambridge Analytica:

  • Sending the cat: If you are looking to relive the UK hearing, reporters for The Guardian were live-blogging it as it occurred, including a Belgian representative explaining that when someone doesn’t show for an appointment, the Flemish say he “sent his cat.”
  • Sandberg under fire: Bloomberg’s Sarah Frier says Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg is coming under fire inside Facebook for her role in some of the controversies that are hounding the social network, including a lack of action against misinformation.
  • Facebook purge: Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi talks to a man who started a left-wing news site that got millions of visitors from Facebook, until it was suddenly shut down in a crackdown on spam and “inauthentic behavior.” But the site’s creator says he published fact-checked news and was never told by Facebook why his site was removed.
  • The “war room” lives: One of the misinformation measures Facebook promoted recently was a “war room” in which staff would target fake news. After a Bloomberg piece said the war room was being disbanded, the company said it wasn’t, and that it is just trying to expand its misinformation work in other ways, or something.
  • Mistakes were made: Facebook’s former head of security, Alex Stamos, wrote a Washington Post editorial in which he admitted the social network did not do enough to recognize the threat from Russia, but he said others were also to blame.

 

Other notable stories:

  • Jamilah Lemieux writes for CJR about “the power and fragility” of working in black media in the United States, something she says she no longer does because so few black publications are healthy financially, and those that are have lost sight of their mission.
  • Lis Power of Media Matters for America notes that while some cable networks are avoiding White House press briefings altogether, others such as CNN are broadcasting them with a “facts first” side panel aimed at correcting falsehoods up front.
  • Condé Nast said Bob Sauerberg, CEO of the US arm of the magazine publisher, is exiting the company as it consolidates its American and international operations under a single global chief executive, who has yet to be named.
  • The Nieman Lab writes about the problems facing Civil, the blockchain-powered journalism platform, after the failure of its cryptocurrency token offering. Some of those writing for newsrooms on Civil say they are facing financial pressure because the tokens they were promised in lieu of salary haven’t arrived.
  • Former Facebook employee Mark Luckie has published a 2,500-word memo that he sent to his coworkers before he left the company, arguing that the social network “has a black people problem.” Luckie said that in some parts of the Facebook campus “there are more Black Lives Matter signs than there are actual black people.”
  • The Emerson Collective, which invests on behalf of Apple founder Steve Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, has acquired the company that produces Pop-Up Magazine events and publishes California Sunday Magazine. The Emerson Collective also owns a controlling stake in Atlantic magazine.
  • Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple says a Bloomberg reporter is trying to nail down earlier reporting done by the news agency for its story about a Chinese hack that allegedly compromised servers used by Apple and Amazon. The story was denied by both companies, and questioned by a number of experts.
  • According to a report by The Daily Beast, staff at the Fox News show Fox & Friends routinely shared their interview questions with the–Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and in some cases even gave him script approval. Fox said this was not standard practice and that the matter was being “addressed internally.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.