A top executive at Facebook came under fire Friday after tweeting that it takes a “well educated citizenry” to fight off Russian election meddling attempts and claimed the main goal of the Russian online disinformation campaign was not to sway the 2016 presidential election, The Wall Street Journal reported.
“Most of the coverage of Russian meddling involves their attempt to affect the outcome of the 2016 US election,” Rob Goldman, Facebook’s head of advertising, tweeted on Friday. “I have seen all of the Russian ads and I can say very definitively that swaying the election was *NOT* the main goal.”
Goldman’s comments came shortly after a federal grand jury indicted 13 Russians and three Russian companies for allegedly meddling in the 2016 presidential election, in a case brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
The indictment described how an organization called the Internet Research Agency allegedly used social media, including Facebook, to create division and tried to influence U.S. public opinion. The company allegedly set up hundreds of social media accounts using stolen or fictitious identities to give an impression that real people are behind the activism online.
The defendants are also accused of starting a disinformation campaign in 2014 and spreading derogatory information about Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, attacking Republican candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and expressing support for then-Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders.
But Goldman, who was “excited to see the Mueller indictment” on Friday, said that despite the common view, “the majority of the Russian ad spend happened AFTER the election.” Part of the reason for lack of awareness is that “very few outlets have covered it because it doesn’t align with the main media narrative of Trump and the election.”
“44% of total ad impressions (number of times ads were displayed) were before the US election on November 8, 2016; 56% were after the election,” read a factoid released by Facebook in October 2017.
“The main goal of the Russian propaganda and misinformation effort is to divide America by using our institutions, like free speech and social media, against us. It has stoked fear and hatred amongst Americans. It is working incredibly well. We are quite divided as a nation,” he said.
He added: “There are easy ways to fight this. Disinformation is ineffective against a well-educated citizenry. Finland, Sweden and Holland have all taught digital literacy and critical thinking about misinformation to great effect.”
But Goldman’s tweets caused a fury on social media and accusations of sowing confusion and diminishing the problem of Russian interference.
“You really are not in a position to preach and your astonishing tweets have created confusion and anger,” Mainardo de Nardis, a senior executive at advertising giant Omnicom Group Inc., said in a tweet Sunday. “Enough damage done over the past 2+ years. In the absence of real actions silence would be appreciated.”
The backlash was further amplified after President Donald Trump cited Goldman’s tweets. “The Fake News Media never fails. Hard to ignore this fact from the Vice President of Facebook Ads, Rob Goldman!” Trump tweeted.
“Mr. Goldman should have stayed silent,” Clint Watts, a fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute who studied the Russian influence campaign, told The Wall Street Journal. He notes that minimizing the impact of the Russian efforts to influence the election risked further angering Americans.
“The public is upset that they got duped on Facebook’s platform. Facebook got duped,” he added. “It makes it seem like they don’t get it.”
Facebook’s vice president of global public policy Joel Kaplan released a statement on Sunday regarding Goldman’s tweets, saying that “Nothing we found contradicts the Special Counsel’s indictments. Any suggestion otherwise is wrong.”
After the onslaught of criticism, Goldman later expanded on some of the claims, tweeting that “the Russian campaign was certainly in favor of Mr. Trump.”
He also issued a caveat about his assertions: “I am only speaking here about the Russian behavior on Facebook. That is the only aspect that I observed directly.”