What's been going on with Facebook?

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There has been much unrest behind closed doors at Facebook recently, leading to doubts over Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's reign on proceedings.

Top executives have left, been forced out and heads of departments have abandoned ship following disagreements with the founder. Reports detailing the company's poor action in response to Russia's exploitation of the platform have also been made in the past week.

Tension behind closed doors

In a report by the Wall Street Journal of a meeting held in June with about 50 of Facebook's leading figures in attendance, it details that Mark Zuckerberg announced the company is at "war" and his new management style is driving key executives out of the company.

The meeting was held in June 2018, but has only now been reported. According to people familiar with the matter but speaking anonymously, "Mr. Zuckerberg's new approach is causing unprecedented turmoil atop Facebook, driving several key executives from the company" and "at times, it has created tensions" with his longtime chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.

Zuckerberg has been criticising Sandberg so heavily, at the time she feared for her job. This spring saw Zuckerberg reportedly blaming Sandberg and her teams for the public fallout over Cambridge Analytica, the research firm that inappropriately received private data on Facebook users and used it for political research, according to people familiar with the exchange. In the internal Q&A, Sandberg apparently took full responsibility for the handling of communications after the scandal.

To add to the previously unreported scrutiny of the company's COO, Zuckerberg also said she should have been more aggressive when allocating resources to deal with the company's ongoing problem of fighting inappropriate content that is posted to the site daily.

Despite this, according to people familiar with the matter, reporters were told that Zuckerberg sees Sandberg as a "very important partner" to him and "continues to be, and will continue to be".

Scrutiny of Facebook and of Sandberg too has only escalated in the past week following the publication of a deep investigation carried out by The New York Times. The report outlined Facebook's use of opposition-research firms tasked with exposing critical information about Facebook's detractors, including one called Definers Public Affairs.

Sandberg and Zuckerberg both said the decision to employ the firm was made by Facebook's communications officials, a team managed by Sandberg.

Regardless, Sandberg did survive unlike heads of other Facebook divisions. The same Wall Street Journal report details fallings out between Zuckerberg and the co-founders in Instagram who abruptly resigned in September over disagreements about Instagram's employment of location data with use by Facebook for better-targeted ads. The co-founders of WhatsApp also resigned after disagreements with the 34-year-old CEO over how to generate more revenue from the messaging app.

Stamos and the Russia saga

On Saturday, The Washington Post published an opinion article from Alex Stamos, the former chief security officer at Facebook which detailed issues within Facebook regarding how efficiently it was in identifying and rectifying Russia's exploitation of the platform to influence the US election.

It follows as The New York Times published a deep investigation into the methods Facebook used to discover and cover up, for some time, its knowledge of Russia's involvement in the US presidential election.

The investigation included interviews from more than 50 people including current and former Facebook executives most of whom spoke anonymously after having signed confidentiality agreements.

The key findings from the investigation were that Stamos and his team discovered evidence that Russia could have exploited its service, billions of fake accounts that could be linked back to Russia were found but these were only 'scratching the surface' of the situation, and at the time they had no idea of the extent to which Russia had manipulated fake news on the site.

Stamos was originally alerted to this by a Russian cyber warfare expert on his team and after a little bit more digging, he alerted Facebook's general counsel, Colin Stretch. This was in spring 2016.

Stamos was surprised to discover that in December later that year, Facebook's CEO was still unaware of his discovery after Zuckerberg publicly scoffed at the idea that fake news on Facebook had helped elect President Trump. This prompted the company's former CSO to arrange a meeting with Zuckerberg, Sandberg and other leading Facebook executives.

Facebook's leaders were irate that it had taken this long for Stamos to alert them to Russia's activity and that having acted alone for so long, Stamos had exposed the company to legal threats. Regardless, the company still built on his findings, assembling a group to work on 'Project P', 'P' for 'propaganda' and they would go on to discover the true extent of Russia's influence.

It wasn't until September 2017 that the company decided to go public, and even then Stamos's post was heavily edited, specific details were omitted and the post eventually went up, saying nothing of Russian-created fake posts, pages or accounts, disclosing only that Russia had spent only $100,000 on 3,000 ads which were fairly insignificant.

After facing waves of criticism from Facebook for having not alerted the public sooner, Stamos understands Facebook made a number of mistakes in 2016.

"At the time, technology companies were so enamored with the utility of our own products and so focused on sophisticated attacks from U.S. adversaries such as Russia and China that we overlooked less advanced but still effective propaganda operations," he wrote.

"Facebook stuck to a public-communications strategy of minimization and denial. It was finally jettisoned in early 2018, but the damage to trust has been massive and will take years to repair."

In the article, Stamos says that he was shouted at by Sandberg for "throwing her under the bus" after explaining to Facebook's board of directors that he and his team had discovered "a web of fake personae that we could confidently tie to Russia".

Whether Stamos could have done more or not, he noted he was treated poorly but is quick to defend Facebook, explaining that the massive intelligence community in the US also "failed to provide actionable intelligence on Russia's information-warfare goals" and said that tech companies simply aren't equipped to understand geopolitical threats.

He set out some ideas that could help combat this in the future. He pointed to the laws that exist in the US surrounding political advertising but aren't being enforced strongly enough: "Congress needs to codify standards around political advertising. The current rules restricting the use of powerful online advertising platforms have been adopted voluntarily and by only a handful of companies."

Ultimately, Russia's work was successful because their targets were unwittingly willing participants - people now know they must be aware of fake news. He concluded that "finally, US citizens must adjust to a media environment in which several dozen gatekeepers no longer control what is newsworthy".

"The last line of defense will always be citizens who are willing to question what they see and hear, even when it means questioning our own beliefs," Stamos said.

This suite of information and opinion would not only suggest Facebook still has plenty of work to do to ensure that it has its data privacy under control and its platform up to scratch when it comes to combating misinformation, but it also needs to work on ensuring the upper echelons of its management are all pulling together.

Connor Jones

Connor Jones has been at the forefront of global cyber security news coverage for the past few years, breaking developments on major stories such as LockBit’s ransomware attack on Royal Mail International, and many others. He has also made sporadic appearances on the ITPro Podcast discussing topics from home desk setups all the way to hacking systems using prosthetic limbs. He has a master’s degree in Magazine Journalism from the University of Sheffield, and has previously written for the likes of Red Bull Esports and UNILAD tech during his career that started in 2015.