How Facebook is Using War Room to Fight Election Interference

NEWS ANALYSIS: Facebook’s war room in Menlo Park, Calif., is intended to allow the company’s security and media experts to manage attacks on elections in the U.S. and elsewhere.

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Facebook announced Oct. 18 that the company has set up a war room at its offices in Menlo Park, Calif., to monitor efforts to interfere with national elections in the United States and Brazil. According to the announcement, the war room is staffed by more than two dozen experts from throughout the company, including from their threat intelligence, legal, data science and software engineering teams. The room includes several large monitors on walls around the room and desks for each of the workers.

The idea of a war room is to get everyone that’s involved in dealing with a threat or some other type of urgent problem into a single room where they can interact instantly to counteract the problem. The workers in the room can see threats as they appear on dashboards on the monitors, and then can work together to investigate and solve each problem.

It’s worth noting that while war rooms are common in the military and elsewhere in government, they’re not uncommon in private industry when urgent, ongoing issues need to be handled.

“The best practice for instant response is to stand up a war room,” said Theresa Payton, CEO and president of Fortalice Solutions, a cybersecurity firm in Charlotte, N.C., made up of former White House cyber operatives and national security veterans. Payton is the former CIO of the White House under the George W. Bush (43) administration. “A war room gives you that physical place where you can triage,” she said. “Nothing can replace that elbow-to-elbow connection.”

Is Facebook Using the Most Effective Approach?

But Payton wonders if Facebook really knows what it takes to run a war room, based on her experience with them involving national security during her time at the White House. She specifically wonders if they’re doing “table top” exercises, which are simulations of a wide number of possible events intended to work out the proper response before they actually happen.

“They need to do more than triage in the moment; they need to change their tactics based on what to expect next,” she explained.

Payton also said that the war room should be broadly based. “If they were asking me for advice for who should sit there, it shouldn’t just be Facebook and the companies they’ve purchased,” she said. “They should have representatives from law enforcement and representatives from Twitter and Google.”

While Facebook revealed in a press conference on Oct. 19 that the company has established communications with representatives from political entities and think tanks in the U.S., Payton thinks they should be in the room.

“Time really has run out. They need to embed those individuals,” Payton said.

Other Industries Using Similar Tactics

Payton said that the financial services industry has been doing something similar in chasing threats and embedding representatives from a variety of fields and from other companies. “Fraud should not be a competitive advantage,” she said. She compared that to social media’s response. “There’s no competitive advantage in chasing fake accounts across platforms,” she added.

Payton suggested that what the social media companies should consider is to follow the lead of Interpol, the international police agency. She said that for social media companies to figure out the threats, they need a fusion center like the one at Interpol.

“The Russian trolls are showing no signs of slowing down,” Payton said, noting the indictment in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia of Elena Khusyaynova, described as the chief accountant and “pay mistress” of the Internet Research Agency’s Project Lakhta, which was the effort to influence the 2016 U.S. election through fake news and social media.

Khusyaynova has been tied to other investigations, including the probe being run by former FBI Director Robert Mueller as Special Counsel, with Russian mobster Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch connected to Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has already been indicted by Mueller’s team.

Some Foreign Suspects Avoiding the U.S.

While some of the leadership has been indicted, they are currently in Russia and aren’t expected to be returned to the U.S. for trial. They are, however, ramping up their attacks on the U.S. elections taking place Nov. 6. A number of observers have reported an increase in fake news intending to create tensions in the U.S. and in Brazil before elections in each country. Facebook has said that fake accounts have seen a sharp increase. The company said in its press conference that it’s shutting down fake accounts within minutes of their creation, when they find them.

Payton said that social media companies could make the process of spotting fake accounts and fake news much easier if they made it easier to report fakes. “It would benefit all of the social media to use some of their PR and marketing dollars to tell the public about tools to report fake news, personas or groups or fake ads. It’s in everyone’s best interests to make this incredibly easy,” Payton said.

Payton is correct that reporting fakes is much harder than it should be. My own experience in reporting fake users and fake news revealed that it requires navigating a series of byzantine menus using choices that make far less sense than they should. While I was able to make those reports, I’m not sure that everyone would bother, and this ultimately hurts the social media companies and their customers.

Ultimately the job is going to get harder. In its announcement, Facebook said “It’s an arms race,” when trying to stay ahead of those illegal influencers. It would help if social media companies started arming their users with the tools necessary to help fight the battle.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...