Social networks spent much of 2017 slowly coming to terms with the extent to which their platforms had been exploited to spread political misinformation. But the narrow focus of investigations over the last year is likely to cause further pain in 2018, as the US midterm elections create a new urgency for the problem to be solved. At the beginning of this year, Facebook was hostile to the suggestion that it may have played an unwitting part in a foreign influence campaign. After the election of Donald Trump, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, described the suggestion that his site may have swayed voters as a “crazy idea”, despite evidence that hoaxes and lies had been spread on the social network during the campaign. (He later apologised for the comment, saying it was “dismissive and I regret it”. By April the company had changed its tune, publishing the findings of a lengthy investigation into “information operations and Facebook” that described all the “subtle and insidious forms of misuse” that could occur on the site, “including attempts to manipulate civic discourse and deceive people”.
One thing missing from that white paper was the identity of the malicious actor. It later emergedthat the company had cut mentions of Russia from the document before publication owing to legal concerns. In a follow-up blogpost in September it had no such qualms: the company revealed the extent of Russian interference for the first time, noting that it had found almost 500 inauthentic accounts and pages that altogether had spent $100,000 on ads.
From there the story snowballed. In October the company shared further information about the ads and how many people had seen them (126 million at the latest count), and it testified alongside Google and Twitter at a hostile committee hearing at the US Congress.