Facebook’s American war room, photographed in October 2018
Photo: AP

Facebook, the social media giant that helped enable genocide and yet is still allowed to exist for some reason, had a big public relations push this weekend. And if the news stories that came out are giving you a sense of deja vu, you’re not alone.

Facebook has a new European “war room” to combat election interference as the European Union prepares for elections on May 20. And the new European war room sounds an awful lot like the American war room that garnered a lot of press in the lead up to the 2018 midterm elections.

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What actually happens in this Facebook war room? We’re not sure, exactly. But we do know that it’s staffed with people who are apparently “hunched over” and looking very busy. We also know that Facebook gets a ton of press for this nonsense.

From Politico.eu (emphasis ours from here on out):

In a sparsely decorated office in the center of the Irish capital, dozens of Facebook staffers are working to protect the upcoming European election.

The group of twentysomething coders, engineers and content specialists sit hunched over multiple screens, scanning the platform for potential illegal behavior. Wall-mounted television monitors keep them up to date on the latest chatter on the world’s largest social network, Instagram and WhatsApp. A single European Union flag hangs on the wall, next to a poster emblazoned with the slogan “New Ways of Seeing.”

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Ooh, twenty-somethings hunched over screens. Sounds serious.

From the Guardian:

This week it took more than a dozen journalists to the Dublin “war room” at the heart of its efforts to protect European elections, to show off the resources it is pouring into protecting the continent-wide vote.

Until the 23 May poll, and for several days after, about 40 people will be hunched over screens around the clock, monitoring the shifting pace of online conversation, looking for signs of manipulation, fake news or hate speech. They are backed up by a global network including threat intelligence experts, data scientists, researchers and engineers.

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Again with the hunched-over people. Can we get them an ergonomic chair or something? Maybe a bean bag? Anything would be better than being hunched over all day.

Mercifully, the Financial Times ignored that everyone was hunched over but still delivered credulous reporting that this “war room” was doing something useful:

Facebook has assembled a team in Dublin to monitor for misinformation ahead of European Parliament elections in May, gathering 40 people at its European headquarters to fight against any attempt to manipulate the outcome of the vote through its apps.

The team, made up of data scientists, engineers, and cyber security officers, are part of a 500-person effort to monitor elections across the world and will work on the EU vote in the run-up to the May 20 ballot. The team will also have policy experts from each of the 28 countries holding elections and native speakers in all 24 official EU languages.

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And Ireland’s RTE news service, which included a very fancy-sounding term, “threat intelligence specialists”:

The war room is staffed by 40 people, including threat intelligence specialists, data scientists, engineers and local experts, who are then backed up by hundreds more people on safety and security teams around the world.

Their job is to close fake accounts, check those running political and issue ads are abiding by the transparency rules, review content and shut down coordinated disruptive action.

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Thankfully, the New York Times at least called bullshit on the entire charade:

Inside the room, employees — many in jeans, T-shirts and hoodies — appeared to be mostly in their 20s or 30s. Many seemed to be browsing news articles from the country they were overseeing.

It’s hard to know what effect their work may have beyond public relations. Facebook allowed journalists to observe for only a few minutes. Citing security concerns, the company didn’t allow employee interviews, and it limited what could be photographed.

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Plenty of news outlets still fall for Facebook’s bullshit PR campaigns, but it’s good to see the Times, at least, calling it out for what it is. When you invite a bunch of journalists for a visit, you’re going to get some people who take your bullshit at face value and write about how everyone was working very hard.

But if a company like Facebook doesn’t allow those same journalists to even ask questions of those “hunched over” workers, you know something fishy is going on.

Facebook has a lot of work to do to combat extremism and election interference on its platform. But that isn’t going to be solved by 40 people “hunched over” in a “war room” that’s clearly just set up for public relations purposes. Try harder, Facebook. And at the very least, don’t try the same trick twice.

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