But Facebook, it turns out, is no bystander in global politics. What he hasn’t said is that his company actively works with political parties and leaders including those who use the platform to stifle opposition—sometimes with the aid of “troll armies” that spread misinformation and extremist ideologies.
The initiative is run by a little-known Facebook global government and politics team led from Washington by Katie Harbath, a former Republican digital strategist who worked on former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign as well as 2014 Indian elections.
Since Facebook hired Harbath to run their secret global goverment and politics unit three years later, her team has traveled the globe (including India helping political clients use the company’s powerful digital tools to create troll armies for digital propaganda.
In India (many other countries as well) the unit’s employees have become de facto campaign workers. And once a candidate is elected, the company in some instances goes on to train government employees or provide technical assistance for live streams at official state events.
In the U.S., the unit embedded employees in Trump’s campaign. In India, the company helped develop the online presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who now has more Facebook followers than any other world leader.
At meetings with political campaigns, members of Harbath’s team sit alongside Facebook advertising sales staff who help monetize the often viral attention stirred up by elections and politics. They train politicians and leaders how to set up a campaign page and get it authenticated with a blue verification check mark, how to best use video to engage viewers and how to target ads to critical voting blocs. Once those candidates are elected, their relationship with Facebook can help extend the company’s reach into government in meaningful ways, such as being well positioned to push against regulations.
That problem is exacerbated when Facebook’s engine of democracy is deployed in an undemocratic fashion. A November report by Freedom House, a U.S.-based nonprofit that advocates for political and human rights, found that a growing number of countries are “manipulating social media to undermine democracy.” One aspect of that involves “patriotic trolling,” or the use of government-backed harassment and propaganda meant to control the narrative, silence dissidents and consolidate power.
In 2007, Facebook opened its first office in Washington. The presidential election the following year saw the rise of the world’s first “Facebook President” in Barack Obama, who with the platform’s help was able to reach millions of voters in the weeks before the election. The number of Facebook users surged around the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East around 2010 and 2011, demonstrating the broad power of the platform to influence democracy.
By the time Facebook named Harbath, the former Giuliani aide, to lead its global politics and government unit, elections were becoming major social-media attractions. Facebook began getting involved in electoral hotspots around the world.
Facebook has embedded itself in some of the globe’s most controversial political movements while resisting transparency. Since 2011, it has asked the U.S. Federal Election Commission for blanket exemptions from political advertising disclosure rules that could have helped it avoid the current crisis over Russian ad spending ahead of the 2016 election.
The company’s relationship with governments remains complicated. Facebook has come under fire in the European Union, including for the spread of Islamic extremism on its network. The company just issued its annual transparency report explaining that it will only provide user data to governments if that request is legally sufficient, and will push back in court if it’s not.
Facebook Troll Armies In India