The election in Germany over the weekend saw the rise of the country's nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, the first time in decades that a far-right group has won seats in German parliament. It also marked Facebook's first real election security test since the company has fully come to terms with the widespread political misinformation on its platform.
In a video broadcast before the election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that his company was focused on protecting the integrity of the German election process. It was the first time Zuckerberg had addressed election interference in detail after initially brushing off Facebook's influence on elections after the 2016 US presidential race.
"We have been working to ensure the integrity of the German elections this weekend, from taking actions against thousands of fake accounts, to partnering with public authorities like the Federal Office for Information Security, to sharing security practices with the candidates and parties. We're also examining the activity of accounts we've removed and have not yet found a similar type of effort in Germany," Zuckerberg said, referencing Russian ad purchases targeting candidates and voters in the U.S. election.
Now, Facebook is updating those numbers. Richard Allan, Facebook's vice president of public policy for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, announced today that Facebook removed "tens of thousands" of fake accounts in Germany during the lead-up to the election.
Although Facebook declined to give the exact number of accounts removed, "tens of thousands" is obviously a marked increase from the thousands previously referenced by Zuckerberg.
The number of accounts deleted by Facebook has been a source of contention between the company and members of Congress like Senator Mark Warner, who has criticised Facebook's decision to delete 470 Russian-linked accounts in the US while it removed 30,000 accounts ahead of the election in France. Facebook, for its part, contends that the 470 accounts in question were liked to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm, while its account deletion metrics for France and Germany reflect the total number of accounts removed, not just ones tied to political misinformation activity.
Allan also provided more details about Facebook's efforts in Germany, saying the company trained members of parliament and candidates about online security and created a channel for authorities with Germany's Federal Office for Information Security to report "issues related to security and authenticity" leading up to the election.
"Protecting the integrity of our platforms during elections is a huge focus for us and something we are committed to — particularly in the face of hostile and co-ordinated interventions," Allan said. "Staying ahead of those who are trying to misuse our service is a constant effort led by our security and integrity teams."
Facebook said it also used several new tools in an effort to nudge German voters towards authentic content on the platform. The company has invited candidates to publicly post their policy positions on Facebook in prior elections, but it has integrated this feature more heavily into the News Feed. After someone in Germany or France clicked on an article related to their elections, Facebook offered them the chance to compare the policy positions outlined by the candidates.
Facebook also offered a hub where users could see all the candidates listed on the ballot, and prompted users to follow their new representatives after the voting closed.
Although Zuckerberg suggested that Facebook did not detect a coordinated misinformation campaign in Germany during the election, Allan says that Facebook didn't entirely quash fake accounts and false news. "These actions did not eliminate misinformation entirely in this election — but they did make it harder to spread, and less likely to appear in people's News Feeds," he explained. "We learned a lot, and will continue to apply those lessons in other forthcoming elections."