Facebook CEO says company thwarted foreign bid to target Alabama Senate race, expert warns of ongoing efforts

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was speaking to the New York Times about personal data security challenges and election interference Wednesday, when he brought up Alabama.

Zuckerberg told The New York Times that Facebook used artificial intelligence to thwart an effort to interfere in the Alabama special election for the U.S. Senate.

“ … in 2017 with the special election in Alabama, we deployed some new A.I. tools to identify fake accounts and false news, and we found a significant number of Macedonian accounts that were trying to spread false news, and were able to eliminate those,” Zuckerberg told The Times.

Shane Hammett, vice president of Huntsville based All Points, is a cyber security expert and works on national security issues. He says the current targeting of Americans begins with a simple idea, introducing something maliciously false into the information stream.

“I liken it to an analogy from kindergarten, you were sitting in a circle of individuals and told a story and it was passed around and the story gets totally altered by the time it gets back to you,” Hammett said.

But, this is the digital age.

“The only difference there is that in can be propagated much faster to a much larger audience,” Hammett said.

And it involves high stakes.

“I`ve been in numerous conferences where the military is starting to talk about this as another form of warfare,” Hammett said.

The way it works -- you`re recruited by what you like, say Roy Moore or Doug Jones.

“A lot of the social media presentation you see as a user is presented through the forms of algorithms on the back-end,” Hammett said. “And understanding those basic principles within that and trying to push content that you`re most likely to have interest in.”

The aim is to fool people and their friends.

“And so the more interest they can get within your network, the more likely they can get to other individuals to latch on to that, start this trend if you will,” Hammett said. “And so there`s a growing knowledge base of misinformation.”

Zuckerberg said the bots aiming for Alabama`s Senate race were from Macedonia, but that may have also been a ruse by the would-be disruptors.

“There are indicators that are easily identified that point back to a specific region based off of just typical network behaviors, how it`s communicating, what protocols it`s using,” Hammett said.

Macedonia is in the Balkans and has about 2 million people. Why would anyone there care about the Alabama senate race?

“So I think in this case, it really is not about the actor, or potential actors,” Hammett said. “It`s really more about the act and that`s what Facebook is really more alluding to -- regardless of who the actor is --  they have to understand the identification of behaviors.”

Social media, where so many people gather, is being used against Americans.

So, now what?

“And so I think that Facebook is really trying to do their due diligence, to clean this up, and pull this back,” Hammett said. “Now what extreme do you go to? There`s assumed risk in anything digital.

“And so there`s a point where it`s acceptable risk, and I think that`s where the point is, where Facebook is trying to pull back to.”

Hammett says companies have a responsibility to handle data carefully, but consumers need to take precautions. He recommends a quarterly check of all the apps on your smart phone, checking to see what kind of access you`ve given them to your information.  If you`re not using it often, Hammett said, it doesn`t have to be enabled.