Facebook should not disband its election war room, a former Obama administration official told CNBC. Otherwise, Russia and other foreign nations could take it as a signal to ramp up disinformation campaigns on the social network.
“If Facebook is not watching, Moscow, Beijing and Tehran will try to exploit that episodic engagement and achieve gains,” said Brett Bruen, who served as the White House’s director of global engagement from 2013 until 2015 and led a task force against Russian meddling in Ukraine’s 2014 election.
Bruen weighed in on Wednesday amid uncertainty about the status of the project. In October, Facebook showed the converted conference room filled with large screens and monitors to CNBC and other outlets. The company portrayed it as a centralized place where staffers would monitor the sprawling social network for attempts to influence voters and spread information ahead of the Brazilian and U.S. elections.
On Monday, Bloomberg reported a Facebook spokesperson saying that the war room had been disbanded and the company was still determining how to handle future elections.
In subsequent statements to CNBC and others, the company walked a fine line. The same team who staffed the war room is still working together, Facebook says, if not necessarily within same physical room. Facebook refused to give CNBC a clear answer as to whether the war room it showed earlier was currently staffed or unstaffed, but said it would be used again in future elections.
Bruen isn’t buying it.
“This is seen in Moscow as a superficial effort by Facebook to try to salvage its reputation rather than to seriously counter this threat,” Bruen said. “If I’m at the Kremlin, I look at this and say, ‘We now have an opportunity to gain ground because Facebook has taken its eye off the ball.”
Bruen believes the war room should be a real thing that the company takes seriously. “It’s as important to be out there saying that you’re doing this stuff to keep offensive operations that Russians and others might want to launch at bay,” Bruen said.
“The realization that I’ve come to, and I hope others will, is that what Sheryl [Sandberg] and Mark [Zuckerberg] did for the elections was largely for show.”
Bruen speaks from experience.
Bruen’s 2014 task force consisted of officials from various agencies, but after the Ukraine elections finished, the unit was disbanded. Bruen said he recommended that the U.S. State Department set up a crisis communications command center to track and respond to online operations. The recommendation was not taken, and two years later, Russian trolls used social media to interfere with the U.S. presidential elections.
“The most important lesson we learned in 2014 is that you have to have a standing capacity to track, to defend and if need be go on the offense against information warfare,” he said. “It’s like any other threat, like nuclear or chemical weapons.”
Now, Bruen urges Facebook to not repeat the mistakes of the Obama administration and keep its war room operational.
“You have to be on guard with this. You need people sitting in the same place,” he said. “They need to be developing the coordination and the communication capabilities that only happen when folks are sitting in the same room.”
That no longer appears to be the case at Facebook.
Facebook’s core investigative, policy, product and legal teams that worked together to combat information operation threats before and inside the election war room continue to work together, Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, told CNBC on Friday.
“That team is still working together and still meeting and driving these investigations,” Gleicher said.
The broader team that combats these threats consists of more than 30,000 people around the globe, the company said. Of those folks, only about 25 actually worked in the war room, Gleichar said.
“The war room is not a one-size-fits-all solution,” Gleichar said. A spokesperson added, “this is just another tool in the suite of tools we have to help protect elections.”
Facebook insists the war room will be set up ahead of future elections. “We’re not a month out from any particular country’s elections,” the spokesperson said.