As Fred Vogelstein and I wrote for the March cover of WIRED, Facebook has had a very rough two years, including in Washington. They’ve been pilloried by the right and the left and they’ve been berated by Congress. They’ve been accused of being blind to the Russian operations, and then uncooperative with the House and the Senate investigations trying to untangle them. Facebook executives believed, however, that the Mueller indictment would help the company. Close readers would see how carefully Facebook had worked with the special prosecutor and how much they had learned about Russia’s plots. Friday seemed liked it might be a good day.
But then, roughly eight hours after the indictment appeared online, Rob Goldman, a VP for ads for Facebook, decided he had a few points to add to the debate. He was just freelancing, and had not cleared his thoughts with either Facebook’s communications team or its senior management.
Facebook has been praised, notably by Digiday, for letting its executives sound off on Twitter, and Goldman had previously partaken of those privileges several times: commenting on Russian propaganda operations, retweeting a note about the weaknesses of liberals who cave under criticism, and helping people worried about traffic to Burning Man. Goldman is far from the most prominent Facebook executive on Twitter, though. He had only 1600 followers, at the time, and his tweets didn’t draw much action on Friday evening.
He had made, however, two big errors—one of which was obvious and one of which was a bit subtle. The obvious error was asserting that one could understand the scope of the Russian propaganda campaign just through the ads. Russia’s ads were viewed roughly 11 million times, while posts by Russia-controlled accounts had been viewed 150 million times. Leaving aside pure numbers, anyone who had read the indictment knew that ads were a minute part of the operation. Facebook likes to point out that the Russians only spent a hundred thousand dollars on all their ads, a rather small number in comparison to the $1.25 million that the indictment reveals Russia’s Internet Research Agency was spending monthly on its election influence campaign.
By the time Facebook executives went to sleep that evening, they had heard about the tweets, but they weren’t particularly worried. One of Facebook’s more senior executives, a VP named Andrew Bosworth, even gave the thread a little boost, retweeting it and noting “Important thread here.”
The tweetstorm started to spread in the early hours of Saturday. It caught the attention of the president of Pro Publica, one of the organizations that has beenmostcriticalof Facebook’s advertising practice. The former deputy communications director of the Clinton campaign noted it too.
And then, the message caught the attention of America’s Tweeter in Chief. And so on Saturday, right about when Facebook’s executives would have been sitting down for lunch, @realdonaldtrump decided that he wanted to introduce his 48 million followers to Rob Goldman.
That’s when, according to executives at the company, Facebook realized it was holding a shit sandwich. It’s also when the company realized Goldman’s more subtle error: He had made it look like his company was repudiating the work of Robert Mueller.
Facebook has long had a vexed relationship with Donald Trump. It’s based in Silicon Valley, and most of the executives and employees are liberal Democrats. Mark Zuckerberg believes, to his core, that the point of his platform is to make the world more open and connected. Donald Trump’s campaign was built on tribalism—dividing America against the world, and dividing American groups against each other.
At the same time, Facebook aspires to serve the entire country, and the entire world. You can’t make America more connected if you ignore the GOP. And Facebook’s Washington office isn’t stupid: They know which party controls power in the capital, and the company has very little interest in alienating the people who might regulate it.
Facebook has grappled with these tensions repeatedly over the past two years. In no small part because of fears that it would be seen as partisan, it missed signs of the spread of fake news on its platform during the summer of 2016. The desire not to appear partisan may have made it harder for the company to spot the Russian operations in the first place, and it also may have contributed to the company’s phlegmatic attitude while dealing later with congressional investigators. The House and Senate intelligence committees are perceived by many in Silicon Valley as leaky and partisan—and perhaps best kept at a slight distance.
With Mueller’s indictment, according to multiple people at the company, everyone felt that Facebook had done something right. The 35 mentions clearly showed that Facebook had fully cooperated with authorities. Many of the details in the indictment, particularly from pages 25 to 30, which include details of messages sent between private Facebook accounts, were given to Mueller by Facebook. That could have been a good story. But then Rob Goldman decided to weigh in, using a rival platform. He now has 10,500 Twitter followers, but a few fewer friends at work.
On Sunday night, Joel Kaplan, the VP of Global Public Policy at Facebook, put out a statement saying “Nothing we found contradicts the Special Counsel’s indictments. Any suggestion otherwise is wrong.” Roughly translated, that meant, “We asked Rob Goldman to throw his phone in a river.”
At its core, Goldman’s mistake was a familiar one for Silicon Valley: An executive really smart at one thing seemed to think he was really smart at another thing. Goldman surely understands all the ads that Russia’s IRA purchased on the platform. He may have even seen the full dossier of information that Facebook presumably created for Mueller, detailing the private messages and chats cited in the indictment. But no one at Facebook has access to the entirety of information that the Mueller indictment references: including the transfers using PayPal, or the internal emails sent by employees at the IRA. Facebook has long suspected that the NSA somehow compromised the IRA—the first time the company thought about Russian propaganda groups buying ads on the platform came because of a reference in a Time magazine story from an unnamed senior intelligence official—and it seems possible that such work could have informed the Mueller report.
Most importantly, there are still three hypotheses about the intertwined goals held by the purveyors of Russian propaganda. The first one, to which Goldman pointed, is that the intention was merely to sow division. They just wanted Americans to fight. Or, as Goldman put it, “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.”
At its core, Goldman’s mistake was a familiar one for Silicon Valley: An executive really smart at one thing seemed to think he was really smart at another thing.
The second, believed by others inside of Facebook to have been most influential, is that the goal was really to weaken Hillary. That’s why the Russians supported Bernie Sanders and then Trump. Like most of the world, Putin expected Hillary to win. And he wanted her to be in a rough spot when she did: fighting off made-up memes about her fraud, her affection for Sharia law, and even her murders.
The third is that the attacks were very specifically aimed at electing Trump. As the indictment shows, the Russians focused their efforts at states that could help swing the electoral college. They also attacked Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, an unnecessary action if the goal was just to undermine Hillary.
According to the closest observers of the operation, and the closest readers of the indictment, Russia was probably pursuing all three goals at different times. The campaign seems to have begun as an effort to sow division, moved into a play to weaken Hillary, and then, as the election neared, turned into a sprint to help Trump. Goldman’s ultimate sin was to pick just one of those narratives, and indeed the one that minimized Facebook’s role in the election of Trump. But in doing so, he ignored Facebook’s larger interests, and he also violated one of the most important principles for people studying the Mueller investigation: No one knows exactly where it’s going, or what he’s got.
On Monday, I spoke with a Facebook executive familiar with the company’s cooperation with Mueller and asked which of the three hypotheses was closest to the truth, based on all the data Facebook has. “I don’t think anyone at Facebook can say definitely one way or another,” they answered. “We are a tech company. Why would we have the answer? I wouldn’t trust us if we said we did.”
Later that day, Rob Goldman seemed to come to the same understanding, and posted internally at Facebook a message that read as follows: “I wanted to apologize for having tweeted my own view about Russian interference without having it reviewed by anyone internally. The tweets were my own personal view and not Facebook’s. I conveyed my view poorly. The Special Counsel has far more information about what happened [than] I do—so seeming to contradict his statements was a serious mistake on my part.
To those of you who have reached out this weekend to offer your support, thank you. It means more than you know. And to all of you who have worked so hard over the last six months to demonstrate that we understand our responsibility to prevent abuse on Facebook—and are working hard to do better in the future—my deepest apologies."