Mark Zuckerberg admits Facebook is in race to stop Russian saboteurs

JOE MURPHY, NIcholas Cecil

Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg today admitted his company is locked in a tech race to stop Russian election saboteurs.

He said the social media giant needed to “get in front” of secret plots to sway millions of voters and destabilise democracies around the world.

Mr Zuckerberg also apologised for the Cambridge Analytica scandal. He said Facebook would be contacting tens of millions of people whose data may have been misused by the political consultancy, which denies wrongdoing.

However, Culture Secretary Matt Hancock said laws to end the “Wild West” on the internet would be introduced. Writing in the Standard, he said: “It is not for companies to decide on the delicate balance between privacy and innovation, but for society as a whole.

Warning: Matt Hancock said new laws will be introduced (EPA)

“I saw that Mark Zuckerberg has apologised and said that they are going to make some changes, but frankly I don’t think those changes go far enough.”

As the Facebook storm grew:

  • Theresa May rallied fellow European leaders to unite to protect their democracies from Russian interference.

  • An early draft of the conclusions of a European Union summit suggested that the bloc would toughen its language condemning the Salisbury nerve agent attack but stop short of directly blaming the Kremlin.

  • Ministers announced that frontmen who use foreign shell companies to hide the true owners of properties in London and other parts of Britain will face up to two years in jail or unlimited fines.

  • Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was said to be speaking for the Government when he compared how Vladimir Putin would seek to exploit this summer’s World Cup in Russia to Adolf Hitler’s efforts with the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The Kremlin branded this “disgusting”.

  • Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, called the Cambridge Analytica furore a “serious moment for the web’s future”. He called on people to “build a web that reflects our hopes & fulfils our dreams more than it magnifies our fears & deepens our divisions”.

Mr Zuckerberg, 33, told CNN: “What’s clear is that in 2016 [during the US presidential election campaigns], we were not as on top of a number of issues as we should have, whether it was Russian interference or fake news.”

Mark Zuckerberg said it was a 'major breach of trust'

He said Facebook deployed AI during the French presidential election last spring which “did a much better job of identifying Russian bots and basically Russian potential interference and weeding that out of the platform”.

He added: “There’s a lot of hard work that we need to do to make it harder for nation states like Russia to do election interference, to make it so that trolls and other folks can’t spread fake news. But we can get in front of this, and we have a responsibility to do this not only for the 2018 midterms in the US but there’s a big election in India this year, there’s a big election in Brazil.”

The Kremlin denies it has sought to swing elections. Pressed on the threat from “bad actors” for the midterms in November, Mr Zuckerberg added: “I’m sure there’s, you know, V2 — a version two of whatever the Russian effort was in 2016.

PR opportunity: Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to use the World Cup to promote his country (EPA)

“I’m sure they’re working on that, and there are going to be some new tactics that we need to make sure that we observe and get in front of.” He said Facebook had already tightened its procedures to stop data being used as it was in the Cambridge Analytica case.

Cabinet minister Mr Hancock, though, said the public were “rightly furious and want action” to bring in stronger data protections.

He said: “The days of an unregulated Wild West are over. This is the moment for government to broker a new settlement between tech companies, society and the state, to put more power and control back in the hands of people who use social media.”

Mrs May was travelling to Brussels today for a summit on the Brexit transitional deal. She will also urge other EU leaders to stand united in confronting Russian aggression.

The Foreign Secretary was said to be speaking for the Government with his comparison between the Russia World Cup and the 1936 Olympics.

However, ahead of Mrs May’s speech in Brussels, a Whitehall source said: “I don’t think it’s currently in her speaking notes.”