Day 6

Zuckerberg says sorry, but people are still using Facebook to mess with Mexico's election

In Mexico, unknown sources are flooding Facebook feeds with dubious "news" stories about the leading candidate.

'Facebook is still the perfect propaganda platform,' says Mother Jones reporter AJ Vicens

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a joint hearing of the Commerce and Judiciary Committees on Capitol Hill about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

Earlier this week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized for his company's role in the Cambridge Analytica data sharing scandal. Zuckerberg spent two days appearing before Congress in Washington, D.C.

During his hearings, Zuckerberg was asked about data sharing, but he was also asked about how Facebook is being used as means to interfere with political campaigns, such as the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Twitter estimates that more than 50,000 Russian bot accounts interfered with the election via its platform.

While investigations into the 2016 U.S. election are underway, there is ongoing concern about the spread of fake news and how it may affect current and upcoming elections. 

On July 1, Mexico holds its general election and, according Mother Jones reporter AJ Vicens, Facebook in Mexico is acting as a perfect propaganda tool for political meddlers. 

Vicens and his colleague Noel Lanard  recently investigated the use of so-called news sites to spread information — or misinformation — on Facebook. He told Day 6 host Brent Bambury how this could affect the results for the upcoming elections in Mexico.  

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is surrounded by members of the media as he arrives to testify before a Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees joint hearing regarding the company’s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Brent Bambury: If I'm a Facebook user in Mexico what types of political stories might pop in my feed right now?

AJ Vicens: I think you'd get the traditional stories that one would see in any country that they're in. The mainstream newspapers and magazines, but also in Mexico there's a very vibrant culture of phoney and dubious sites that are set up specifically to push misinformation and muddy the waters around various candidates.

You identified four sites that seem to be pumping out the majority of these stories. Can you describe the stories coming from those sites?

These stories are largely anonymous. They have no bylines. They sensationalize stories about the leftist candidate Andres Lopez Obrador. They will exaggerate about his health for instance, or claim that he's going to create a totalitarian state in Mexico. There's some with images of blood dripping from his fangs. That's the type of fare we're talking about here.

Mexico's presidential candidate for the MORENA party, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, waves during a campaign rally in Rio Bravo, Tamaulipas, Mexico. (Julio Cesar Aguilar/AFP/Getty Images))

But you have been able to determine that someone is launching coordinated attacks using Facebook and these sites. How do you know? How were you able to determine that there's coordination here?

My colleague Noah Lanard and I noticed some of these sites pushing the stories, and we started to notice that the stories had a similar theme. And so, what we did was we saw where these websites were registered and posted on a hosting security company called Cloudflare.

Then, as we compared notes and saw when they were registered, we looked in the back-end source code of the websites and noticed that they had the same Google Analytics tracking code. That really was sort of the nail in the coffin for me in terms of understanding that someone was common through all of these websites. 

Life-sized cutouts of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sit on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol. The advocacy group Avaaz placed the cutouts on the lawn to bring attention to the alleged hundreds of millions of fake accounts spreading disinformation on Facebook ahead of Zuckerberg's congressional hearing. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

If some of the stories aren't necessarily fake but just extreme in their views, like Breitbart for example, are they violating any Facebook principles or rules?

No, they're not. That's one of the things we were discussing in the story. You know, Facebook, what they told us is these sites are not violating any of their policies. And it's not necessarily the messages themselves that are what's troubling. What's troubling to us is that these sites are trying to appear to be different and separate sites, but actually they're coordinated behind the scenes as part of a coordinated propaganda campaign. 

You watched all of Mark Zuckerberg's testimony this week in Washington. And there were many different issues that were raised there. But did you hear anything that gives you hope that Facebook will be able to stop political interference on its platform?

The policies they are adopting are somewhat encouraging. There will be a better way to track specific political advertising and issue-based advertising. That would allow people to see the advertisements that a particular page is running. And so, you would be able to theoretically track what messages a group is putting out and how those messages compare to the various audiences they're trying to reach and who is funding them. That could be helpful.

Mexico's presidential candidate Jose Antonio Meade, standing for the coalition Todos por Mexico of the PRI, PVEM and Nueva Alianza parties, waves at supporters during his first campaign rally, in Merida, Yucatan State, Mexico. (Luis Perez/AFP/Getty Images)

So in the case of the Mexico election, what you've been able to observe, could that new feature indicate to people that a small number of individuals might be behind a campaign that looks like it's a movement or a large group of people?

Well theoretically, if they were specifically politically advertising for somebody or posing as an issue-based group that was pushing a particular point of view, that could help in that situation. What's troubling about the sites that my colleague Noel Lanard and I found is, these sites are posing as news organizations. And so, they would fall through the cracks on this policy. There's just no way for Facebook to combat what's happening. This is why Facebook is still the perfect propaganda platform.

Based on what you're seeing in Mexico right now, should Canadians be worried about our election in 2019?

I think people in every country should be worried about elections and how Facebook serves as a platform for messaging and for news. I think what people should be doing is having a lot more questions about the sources of information that they're seeing on their Facebook feeds, that their friends are sharing. But when it comes to messages that sound too good to be true or are very slanted and one sided, you should really take a second to think about where this information is coming from. 

To hear more from AJ Vicens, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.