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The Information Threat Vector(s): Why Facebook Regulation and Accountability Matters

Facebook has been headlining the news for three consecutive days – and not in a good way:  60 Minutes devoted a segment to the company’s negative internal research, a congressional hearing with a whistleblower, and an unprecedented and complete access outage of the platform and its sister companies – all on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, respectively.

Why are the scale, scope, and impact of Facebook and its family of social media platforms (Instagram, WhatsApp, etc.) so important? First, there are the clear threats faced by the global community: climate change, the not-if-but-when next pandemic, the future of coordinated global pandemic response, and international terrorism. Great power competition, including Chinese and Russian cyber-offensive activities, and the domestic U.S. terrorism threat also loom large for the U.S.

Typically, the role of information networks in these threats (save cyber) is usually characterized as a vaguely secondary “challenge” – information as a sub-category of the larger geopolitical threats and domestic risks itemized above.  While climate change is often described as a singular existential threat, all these other threats (along with climate change) are cumulatively existential because they are all playing out in parallel fashion – fast-moving and real-time. 

At this point in current events, such subjugation of the role of information networks, ecosystems, and platforms is simply wrong-headed. It is the atrophy of truth and public safety and sanity in the public square that will be the on-the-ground, manifest experience of these threats.  And that is an information threat vector over all else.  If we are not vigilant, the experience will be, first and foremost, an information and communications technologies powered (ICT) systemic failure on a grand scale (which we may be in the beginning phases of as we speak).  

Climate crises and climate disasters, emergency preparedness and disaster response, ransomware response – those are challenges. Information is not simply a challenge, but The Threat Vector lording over all other threats. For those with IC experience, this fact may seem like a grasp from the obvious. But it is the mainstreaming of information as a threat – the saturation of the information threat into all parts of daily life, geopolitical power structures, the mental health and welfare of our young people – that is new and broad and pernicious and no longer exclusively the purview of experts in government agencies responsible for the build-out of offensive and defensive intelligence operations capabilities.

The Information Threat Vector and Facebook

As we move into the Fall here at OODA Loop and begin to discuss a 2022 research agenda (topics, themes, frameworks, etc.), we are exploring the potential for “The Information Threat Vector” research topic. Under this moniker would be the ongoing, oft-mentioned information “challenges” – information operations, cyber information warfare, foreign hostile influence, intelligence operations, influence warfare, disinformation, proxy warfare, and the perennial threat of terrorism, foreign and domestic fueled by social media – which we may explore as the number one threat (with all other threats – existential or otherwise – as sub-categories).

And then there is Facebook in the context of such research.  Facebook is Information: Amplified, Weaponized, Unregulated, and Unfettered. That is why Facebook matters. Across all information types – disinformation, cyberwar, etc. – there sits Facebook. It is a pipe for adversarial and maleficent information flows and dopamine release induced in users worldwide. In the further parlance of addiction: Facebook is a dopamine delivery system with harmful and addictive effects. Or, to use a supply chain analogy, it is the intermodal shipping ecosystem for all information. In some of these information containers, dangerous things are hidden.  To be fair and to make sure this argument does not sound too alarmist, Axios provides a breakdown of Facebook addiction as a category of the overall Internet addiction phenomenon – and makes the counterargument that claims of media addiction date back to the advent of the novel.

If Facebook has never been your thing or you consciously run in more esoteric, secure information networks and, as a result, question Facebook’s scale and influence, consider this: the platform has approximately 2.89 billion active users monthly worldwide. The platform reached 1 billion active users monthly in 2012, which means they achieved 2X growth over a nine-year period. Facebook is a borderless nation-state and at times a hostile foreign power (which a recent article in The Atlantic by Adrienne LaFrance argues persuasively).

Facebook counts as its “netizens” brick and mortar, or more apropos, flesh and blood citizens of all other nation-states on the planet. And that, in the end, is the perniciousness of it all. In 2020, there were 297 million Facebook users in the domestic U.S. – with a projection of 325 million total users in the domestic U.S. by 2026. The Russian GRU and the Chinese MSS would kill for such stateside cyber intelligence penetration of the population of the United States. The reality is they do not have to kill anyone or have geopolitical cyber envy of Facebook’s capabilities. Facebook’s casa is the GRU’s and the MSS’ casa.  Through Facebook, both the GRU and the MSS enjoy just such penetration of the psychological battlefield inside the physical territory of the U.S.

Growing Calls for Facebook Accountability and Regulation

Last week, a Congressional hearing on “Protecting Children Online” (by the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, which was extremely critical and combative towards the Global Head of Safety at Facebook, Antigone Davis, who appeared before the committee), was followed on Sunday by the revelation of the Facebook whistleblower in a segment on 60 Minutes. The whistleblower, Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager, had already collaborated on an eight-part series with the WSJ which informed both the congressional hearing and the 60 Minutes segment. Haugen then testified before the same Congressional Committee on Monday.

According to Ms. Haugen, thousands of pages of internal research from Facebook (documents which she made copies of prior to her departure from the company) also provide proof of the harm the platform causes to vulnerable individuals, marginal communities, and the health of civic discourse worldwide.

These are only the most recent and increasingly more high-profile examples of the broad criticism and legal actions arrayed against the social media behemoth.  Facebook’s business model is under intense scrutiny amidst growing calls for accountability in the form of multiple court actions, SEC filings, lawsuits, and watchdog reports worldwide that have clearly grown in their strength and momentum:

  • In December of 2020, the FTC and 48 attorneys general sued the social network, accusing it of illegal competition practices. As recently as yesterday – Monday, October 4th – amidst all these other events and media attention, Facebook was in a courtroom asking “a judge to dismiss the Federal Trade Commission’s antitrust complaint against Facebook.” Up until the events of the last three days, this lawsuit was considered “the most existential regulatory threat to its business.”
  • On September 23rd, the WSJ reported that a “Federal judge rules [the] social-media company must hand over information about posts removed for promoting violence against Rohingya Muslims. Some 20 million of Myanmar’s 53 million people had Facebook accounts in 2018, according to a company-commissioned report.  According to the ruling, the accounts were linked to government-backed violence against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar…the ruling was decided by a magistrate judge in Washington who criticized the social media platform for refusing to provide the records to countries pursuing a case against Myanmar in an international court. The magistrate stated that the failure to pass over records compounds the tragedy that has already affected the minority group.  The case is among the first from a federal court requiring that Facebook comply in handing over data to third parties about accounts that have been removed for rules violations, such as inauthentic behavior or spreading misinformation.”

The Three Horse People of the Facebook Apocalypse

The Facebook Whistleblower’s SEC filing is worth tracking. It is to be seen if they become law, policy, and/or regulation. Committee Chair Senator Blumenthal and Commerce Committee members were certainly talking tough during both recent hearings. The Department of Commerce, The Whistleblower, and SEC are all worth watching in the months ahead for progress towards meaningful legislative and regulatory action within the USG.

The fear, of course, is that these developments will not gain traction or momentum and that the Executive Branch is not prepared or interested in the direction of the regulation or policymaking. There are obvious signs, however, that The White House has put a foundation in place for this face-off with Facebook and Big Tech generally. President Biden has already called for the repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, an effort for which there is bipartisan support.

The stark reality for the social media giant is that the future, scale, and scope of Facebook and its platform companies is already in the able hands of three recent Biden appointees (along with the agencies where they are currently appointed). These are the people and places to watch in the months ahead for the final determination of the regulatory, legislative, legal, and policy future of Facebook and its “Family of Apps”:

Tim Wu at the WH NEC:  Wu coined the phrase “net neutrality.”  A Senior Advisor at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) during the Obama Administration and a Professor of Law, Science, and Technology at Columbia University. In 2018, Wu wrote a seminal Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post – “The case for breaking up Facebook and Instagram” – in which he admitted to the anachronistically awful approach he and his colleagues at the FTC brought to their analysis of the Facebook acquisition of Instagram in 2012:

“Just why is Facebook in control of Instagram, its greatest natural competitor, in the first place? Isn’t antitrust law supposed to stop companies from buying off their rivals to achieve market dominance? The answer is that we — the Obama administration’s antitrust enforcers — blew it. Our standards for assessing mergers, fixated on consumer prices, were a poor match for the tech economy and are effectively obsolete.”

A fixation on consumer prices just does not work for “attention merchants” — those firms that give away “free” products in exchange for time and attention and resell their audiences to advertisers. If a better analysis is used, it becomes clear that the Facebook acquisition of Instagram was illegal to begin with. Fortunately, it is not too late to fix the error. The antitrust authorities have the power to undo the merger and restore real competition.

What happened? In retrospect, the agencies did not have the tools to understand the markets or the stakes. That is because, over the last 30 years, the merger review process has become narrowly focused on whether consumer prices might rise following a merger. The process involves teams of economists making predictions about those prices. The approach has its flaws even in traditional markets, but in the tech industry, it is a non-starter.

In the case of Facebook and Instagram, the agencies confronted two firms that did not charge users, instead of competing chiefly for time and attention. As Instagram had not begun to sell ads, the antitrust agencies were unable to see a problem. The British competition office even went as far as to publicly assert that the companies were not competitors at all. It takes many years of training to reach a conclusion this absurd.”

Wu is also the author of “The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age” And is in a new governmental position. “New” not only for him but an altogether new position at the National Economic Council, where he was appointed by the Biden Administration as a Special Assistant to the President for Technology and Competition Policy, “Putting one of the most outspoken critics of Big Tech’s power into the administration.” His appointment did not require Senate approval.

Vanita Gupta at Justice: Back in April, Vanita Gupta was confirmed by The Senate as Associate Attorney General, the #3 spot at the DoJ. Gupta, like Wu, has a record of accomplishment “As one of the most prominent advocates for change at tech companies including Facebook, prominently criticizing the company’s handling of violent rhetoric, hate speech and political misinformation.” Gupta was the CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and has previous experience meeting directly with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg on issues such as minority communities and voter suppression.

The Washington Post reported an interesting perspective on Gupta’s leadership and policymaking style from Laura Murphy, president of Laura Murphy & Associates, whose firm has performed civil rights audits of both Facebook and Airbnb: “Gupta would be the rarer Washington official who actually has a deep understanding of tech issues. Murphy predicted Gupta would bring a “scalpel” to regulating the tech industry instead of the sledgehammer-style calls for regulation common in Washington.”

Gupta graduated from New York University’s School of Law in 2001 and worked at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She then worked on reforming the criminal justice system as a staff lawyer at the ACLU. Gupta will oversee the department’s civil division – including the antitrust, tax, and environment and natural resources divisions- and will represent the Biden Administration in any civil proceedings. The Civil Rights Division of DoJ is also under Gupta.

In a 2018 letter, Gupta wrote a letter to Facebook to call attention to the uses of the platform to perpetuate bigotry and racial violence.

Lina Khan at the FTC: An antitrust scholar who has called for increased pressure on Big Tech, Khan has been enlisted by the Biden Administration as a new member of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Democratic majority. Kahn held the position of counsel to a House Judiciary Committee panel “whose sweeping 16-month investigation of Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google declared those monopolies and suggested ‘structural separations’ of the companies.”

She also worked as an aide to FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra and at the New America Foundation and a sister monopoly watchdog organization, the Open Markets Institute.

A Yale Law School graduate, Kahn’s 2017 Yale Law Journal “article that detailed the weakness of existing antitrust rules in the face of companies such as Amazon. It elevated a new legal movement — sometimes called “hipster antitrust” — that argues U.S. law focuses so much on prices and short-term impact on consumers that it fails to stamp out anti-competitive behavior that hurts rival companies or suppliers, for example.” In a 2019 interview, Kahn is quoted as saying: “I think if you’re going to be a dominant marketplace, then you perhaps shouldn’t be able to also sell on that marketplace, putting yourself in direct competition with all the merchants that are dependent.”

A related but still pending Biden Administration nomination to watch is that of Jonathan Kanter as Assistant Attorney General in the United States Department of Justice Antitrust Division. Finally, Axios offered one last reality check on Wu, Gupta, and Khan: “The roles Khan and Wu will hold within in the administration are not final decision-makers, so while they will be influential in shaping the debate, they won’t have the last word on outcomes.”

Implications for Decision-making and Strategy

As strange as it sounds, Facebook is the whole game right now. Federal regulation of and accountability for Facebook – with the right frameworks and implementation – will alleviate pain points and the level of threat for parents (concerned with their teenager’s mental health) and the IC community (leadership and analyst working on the toughest intelligence operations and techniques) alike.

For business leaders, map your business issues and risk – everywhere from HR and Wellness tools provided by your company to deal with familial and personal impacts of social media to business issues that have alignment with Facebook as a potential risk to your brand, your community, or your user/consumer. To start: what does your ad spend look like, if any, on Facebook and its family of apps?

For government agencies and think tanks working on any of the information threat vector research topics: Facebook’s role in the information architecture and flows contributing to the negative amplification, weaponization, and network effects are your premium insights and analysis right now. Provide research to policymakers and regulators to influence their thinking to be more nuanced, more layered in its complexity – and as a result more successful.

It is a slippery slope, legislation and regulation that takes a too broad and rudimentary approach to reigning in the social media giants.  The Intelligence Community and agency experts steeped in these matters should also play a crucial role in decision-making analysis, research, and support for legislators and policymakers at this inflection point in the codification of 21st-century anti-trust norms, rules, regulations, and laws.  This anti-trust and monopoly breakup effort is yet another difficult event, like the pandemic, that last happened over 100 years ago.  It will require a scalpel, not a sledgehammer.

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Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira is research director at OODA. He is a foresight strategist, creative technologist, and an information communication technology (ICT) and digital media researcher with 20+ years of experience directing public/private partnerships and strategic innovation initiatives.