Somewhere in the heart of Facebook HQ, a shadowy team toils behind the closed doors of what would appear to be an average conference room. This is Facebook’s War Room, and it’s the thin line standing between us and chaos.
Gizmodo did not visit the War Room, but late last night, almost simultaneously, bleary-eyed journalists hit publish on multiple pieces describing this crisis centre. What they saw was astonishing:
DEEP IN THE bowels of Facebook’s serpentine campus in Menlo Park, California is a room about 25 feet square that may have a lot to do with how the world thinks about the company in the coming months. It looks like a Wall Street trading floor, with screens on every wall and every desk. And 20 hours a day — soon to be 24 hours a day — it’s jammed with about two dozen geeks, spooks, hackers, and lawyers trying to spot and quash the next bad thing to happen on the company’s networks.
Inside a bland conference room — equipped with video screens, a whiteboard, and an American flag — a small squad of Facebook employees is trying to prevent disinformation campaigns from tilting the upcoming midterm elections.
In an otherwise innocuous part of Facebook’s expansive Silicon Valley campus, a locked door bears a taped-on sign that reads “War Room.” Behind the door lies a nerve center the social network has set up to combat fake accounts and bogus news stories ahead of upcoming elections.
On one hand, the war room is just one of many conference rooms in MPK 20, the company’s Menlo Park, CA headquarters. But it’s larger than average, and has been stuffed with people and electronics equipment. There are desks for 24 people, and the room is ringed with 17 screens, each of which highlights a different stream of information Facebook is monitoring.
From the outside, Facebook’s “war room” looks like a typical conference room on the tech firm’s Menlo Park, California, campus. But on the inside, the open space, flags, clocks, TV screens, posters and blue and white labels next to computer screens signal that it isn’t your average meeting room.
Beneath an American flag, 20 people packed tight into a beige conference room are Facebook’s, and so too the Internet’s, first line of defence for democracy. This is Facebook election security war room.
— Ric Olsen (@Ric9871Ric) October 18, 2018
There are flags, there are posters, there are maps and screens. But what’s happening in this room?
Inside the room are dozens of employees staring intently at their monitors while data streams across giant dashboards.
Engineers, data scientists, threat investigators and other Facebook experts from 20 teams recently began collaborating inside the so-called “war room”, a term that political campaigns typically use to describe operation centres.
All told, representatives from 20 teams have people in the war room, representing 20,000 global employees working on safety and security. The teams include threat intelligence, data science, engineering, research, operations, legal, policy, communications, and representatives from Facebook-owned WhatsApp and Instagram.
The facility resembled a conventional office room, with young employees working side-by-side, some situated in front of standing desks adorned with multiple screens. One would be mistaken that the employees were coding away on typical software projects if it weren’t for the printed-out labels attached to some of the monitors with descriptions like “Elections Software Engineer,” “Integrity Software Engineer,” and “Research Brazil.”
— Bloomberg (@business) October 18, 2018
Why are all these people staring at screens? What’s happening here? What’s this War Room for?
The company has been under intense scrutiny from Congress, federal investigators, and the media, after it emerged that Russian government-linked operatives manipulated its platform to target Americans in 2016.
During the U.S. presidential election, Russian government trolls and profit-driven fake news outlets polluted the social network with polarising propaganda. Now Facebook hopes to avoid a repeat in the upcoming US midterms as well as elections across the globe. And to win the hearts, minds, and trust of the public, it’s being more transparent about its strategy.
This demonstration of Facebook’s internal efforts comes after a long string of security breaches and privacy hacks, going back to Russian manipulation of the 2016 presidential elections. Since the revelation of the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal in March, Facebook shares have fallen 14 per cent. Now, the social-media giant is pulling out all the stops to prevent another debacle and more negative headlines.
.@Facebook's unveiling a new so-called war room to help deal with urgent threats in the upcoming midterms & prevent election interference. Facebook disabled more than a billion fake accounts between October '17 & March '18.
— CBS This Morning (@CBSThisMorning) October 18, 2018
Ah, I see. So, Facebook’s stock price is falling, it’s smothered by scandal, it really screwed up that last election, it wants to avoid more bad headlines, and it’s doing all this to be more transparent. Did this gaggle of reporters learn anything specific about War Room operations?
The press briefing provided minimal new information about Facebook’s specific strategies and impacts when it comes to combatting foreign interference and false news.
When pressed by reporters, Facebook execs didn’t have a satisfying answer on how it would try to combat the flow of fake news and misinformation, instead pointing to minor cosmetic changes like the addition of a “Forwarded” indicator next to messages that have been forwarded, to show when a message didn’t originate with the sender.
The War Room may or may not be doing its job, but the Facebook PR team is killing it.