Facebook, fresh off a number of embarrassing incidents that algorithms and automated systems couldn’t stop, is turning to a team of former intelligence officers and researchers to identify the next potential crisis the platform might face.
According to a report from BuzzFeed, the new group of experts is known internally as the “Investigative Operations Team.” Comprised of experts in a variety of fields, the group spends its days attacking various parts of Facebook’s platform to identify weaknesses before a malicious actor can exploit them.
The crisis team pokes and prods at all parts of Facebook to see what might be vulnerable to manipulation. Per BuzzFeed, the researchers are looking for ways to exploit Facebook’s advertising systems, pages, and merchant tools. They’re also trying to break other parts of the Facebook ecosystem, including Messenger and Instagram.
They also keep tabs on potentially problematic behavior coming out of different regions around the world. The team has looked for keywords and other indicators that might promote violence in Myanmar, where Facebook’s platform has been used to spread hate speech and misinformation that may have contributed to the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims.
It’s hard not to view the Investigative Operations Team as a direct reaction to the events of the last two years, in which Facebook saw its service turn into a propaganda platform. During the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election, Facebook seemed to be inundated with fake stories, ridiculous advertisements, and viral pages that, in many cases, were created and operated by Russian government-linked internet trolls.
Facebook seemed completely unprepared for the incident at the time. Fresh off of firing its human editors who helped curate news stories, the company switched to an algorithm that immediately promoted an article full of misinformation. The company was in a crisis right at the worst possible time that left it struggling to keep up with the attacks coming from Russia and elsewhere.
Already on its heels at the time, the hits just kept coming for Facebook. It was discovered that its advertising platform allowed ad buyers to target users by race. The company also came under fire for allowing people to serve ads to users who were identified by Facebook’s algorithm as “Jew Haters.” Then there was the Cambridge Analytica scandal that exposed the personal information of 87 million people without their permission.
According to BuzzFeed, Facebook chalked up the issues to suffering from a “failure of imagination” that prevented the company from anticipating the attacks and criticisms that it has faced in recent years. “It was clear late last year that we needed to do more and do something different,” Facebook Business Integrity Director Lynda Talgo told BuzzFeed. “And honestly it wasn’t clear before that.”
The Investigative Operations Team that “something different.” First formed last year, the group has been tasked with spotting the next crisis before it happens so Facebook can plug the holes. Facebook is still working to build out the team and determine how exactly it will operate, but its success will likely be determined by how many more appearances in front of Congress that CEO Mark Zuckerberg will have to make.