Jul 9, 2021 - Technology

"An Ugly Truth": How Facebook discovered Russian meddling

Mike Allen
Mark Zuckerberg book cover
Cover: Harper

"Oh f---, how did we miss this?" Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asked, looking around at the somber faces of his top executives, the N.Y. Times' Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang write in their book, "An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination," out Tuesday.

In an excerpt provided first to Axios, the authors write that the executives met Dec. 9, 2016, for a briefing on what Facebook's security team knew about Russian meddling on the platform during the election won by Donald Trump.

The security team, it turns out, had first spotted Russian activity on the platform in March 2016. But Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg were just being told about it nine months later.

  • The eight-page handout for the meeting — written by Alex Stamos, then Facebook's chief security officer — "acknowledged that Facebook was sitting on a trove of information proving that a foreign government had tried to meddle in the U.S. election."

Frenkel and Kang, in a chapter called "Company Over Country," write that "no one else spoke as Zuckerberg and Sandberg drilled their chief security officer":

Why had they been kept in the dark? How aggressive were the Russians? And why, asked a visibly agitated Sandberg, had she not known that Stamos had put together a special team to look at Russian election interference? Did they need to share what Stamos had found with lawmakers immediately, and did the company have a legal obligation beyond that?

What happened: The security team "had uncovered information that no one, including the U.S. government, had previously known," the authors write.

  • "Stamos felt that he had been trying to sound the alarm on Russia for months."
  • Stamos said: "It was well within my remit to investigate foreign activity within the platform. And we had appropriately briefed the people in our reporting chain ... It became clear after that that it wasn’t enough."

At the meeting, "Stamos gave a somber assessment of where they stood, admitting that no one at the company knew the full extent of the Russian election interference," we learn from "An Ugly Truth."

  • "Zuckerberg demanded that the executives get him answers, so they promised to devote their top engineering talent and resources to investigate what Russia had done on the platform."

Update ... Facebook spokesperson Dani Lever replied in a statement to Axios:

  • "In 2016, we and those in the government and media did not fully recognize the nature and scope of foreign interference in our elections. Since 2017, we have removed over 150 covert influence operations originating in more than 50 counties, and a dedicated investigative team continues to vigilantly protect democracy on our platform both here and abroad."

Go deeper: Read a N.Y. Times adaptation (subscription).

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