Facebook denies ‘Russian activity’ on network in 2014, despite MP’s claim

An actor dressed as Mark Zuckerberg arrives at Portcullis House, London, where a hearing is taking place on the impact of disinformation on Credit: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

Facebook knew about a possible cyber attack on the platform linked to Russia years before they were made public, according to a leading MP in charge of holding the social network to account over issues of disinformation on the platform.

Damian Collins, chairman of the parliamentary inquiry into fake news, said a company engineer had warned that “entities with Russian IP addresses” had accessed “three billion data points a day” from the network in October 2014, quoting from internal Facebook emails seized from US software company Six4Three.

Mr Collins' comments came during an "international grand committee" of politicians from around the world, yet Facebook's CEO, Mark Zuckerberg snubbed the event, with the social media giant’s vice-president of policy solutions, Richard Allan appearing instead, but he failed to answer many questions.

Mr Allan could not tell the committee whether Facebook knew about the alleged data access or whether relevant authorities were notified, but claimed the email cache was “at best partial, at worst potentially misleading”.

A spokesperson for the company said “the engineers who had flagged these initial concerns subsequently looked into this further and found no evidence of specific Russian activity” but offered no further clarification.

Mark Zuckerberg was empty-chaired at the meeting. Credit: PA

Six4Three obtained the internal Facebook emails through legal mechanisms in the US, where the company is involved in court action against the social media giant.

Parliament seized the emails on Sunday and Mr Collins promised to release a redacted version of the correspondence “very soon”.

Alluding to the Six4Three emails, Labour MP Clive Efford said the committee had “seen evidence” regarding the closure of third-party apps on the network which “could not pay large sums of money for mobile advertising” and closing apps “so that Facebook can move into that area and make money”.

Lord Allan said he was “not aware” of such practices.

The Liberal Democrat peer and Facebook executive faced stern questioning on Tuesday over a range of criticisms including recent data breaches, allegations of business malpractice, repeated electoral interference and the rampant spread of disinformation and hate speech on the platform.

Chief among the grievances of representatives was Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s refusal to answer questions, despite repeated invitations.

“In this room we represent over 400 million people and to not have your CEO sit in that chair there is an offence to all of us in this room and, really, our citizens as well,” said Bob Zimmer, chairman of Canada’s committee on access to information, privacy and ethics, pointing to an empty seat and nameplate left for founder Mark Zuckerberg.

“While we were playing on our phones and apps, our democratic institutions – our form of civil conversation – seem to have been upended by fratboy billionaires from California,” said Mr Zimmer’s vice-chairman, Charlie Angus.

Lord Allan appeared in Mr Zuckerberg’s place but was criticised for repeatedly failing to answer questions.

An exchange with Singapore’s Edward Tong drew gasps from the assorted politicians as Lord Allan described Facebook green-lighting hate speech on the platform as “a mistake”.

A Facebook post published in Sri Lanka during a time of political unrest in the country proclaimed “Kill all Muslims, don’t even let an infant of the dogs escape”, said Mr Tong, but a Facebook moderator said it did not violate the network’s standards.

Mosques were attacked, Muslims were killed and a state of emergency was declared in the country in March 2018, he added.

“Would you accept that this case illustrates that Facebook cannot be trusted to make the right assessment of what can appear on its platform?”

Lord Allan agreed that the social media giant should be held accountable.

Hildegarde Naughton, chairwoman of the Irish joint committee on communications, climate action and environment, said: “In light of the fake news and data breaches that your company has been involved in over the last two years, do you accept that Facebook needs to be regulated?”

“So … yes,” Lord Allan replied.