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What Meta has learned from global conflict

Protocol Policy

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Policy! Today, we’re talking about what Meta has learned from violent conflicts and instability around the world. Plus, the FTC has a new weapon against privacy violations, and search engines struggle to figure out what to do about Russian state media.

What Myanmar means for Ukraine

History won’t look kindly at the way Facebook fumbled the genocide in Myanmar. The platform’s failure to control anti-Rohingya propaganda at the outset is by now well-recorded, including in a 60-page report and a $150 billion lawsuit.

By Facebook’s own admission, in late 2017 as violence spiked, the company’s AI systems missed more than 80% of the hate speech it eventually removed. Facebook at that time also had no formal human rights policy, no rules around misinformation that can lead to violence and almost no staff who spoke the local language. The company had also never banned government officials from the platform before.

Within a few years, all that changed. The situation in Myanmar and the widespread attention to Facebook’s role in it shook the company from its complacency, helping prompt Facebook to hire more Burmese speakers, craft new policies and, for the first time in its history, ban a slew of high-ranking government officials from the platform.

Why bring that up now? Not because I want to pat Facebook on the back. But because looking at what Facebook has learned from Myanmar and other conflicts around the world can tell us a lot about how it’s responding to Russia’s war in Ukraine right now.

  • “Meta and the other platforms are in a vastly better and more prepared position than they were a few years ago,” said Emerson Brooking, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
  • It’s why, the moment the invasion began in earnest, Meta could flip a switch and turn on protections for users in Ukraine. It had already used that feature in more than a dozen places, including Afghanistan.
  • And it’s why the company started cracking down on Russian state media in the region within days (although, as I’ve argued, that was years later than it should have).
  • “Whilst this does feel in many ways somewhat atypical just because of the enormity of the global response, which is quite unusual, I think many of our reflexes are ones that we have largely developed before,” Meta’s president of Global Affairs, Nick Clegg, recently told Protocol.

Meta hasn’t just honed these reflexes in war zones. It’s learned from global elections in the U.S. and elsewhere.

  • Facebook created its first election war room before the 2018 U.S. midterms, in what some worried was just a PR stunt to appease critics post-2016.
  • But the war room concept — now known as the Special Operations Center — created at least some sort of structure that the company can lean on in times of crisis.
  • These centers are staffed around the clock, with employees working in shifts and briefing the next shift when its members come online. “It helps facilitate fast communication,” said Katie Harbath, Facebook’s former public policy director who helped set up the 2018 war room.

Facebook, of course, has not perfected any of this. Whistleblower Sophie Zhang has spoken extensively about how Meta has continually overlooked dangers in Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East while tending to trouble at home and in Europe. And nothing could prepare Meta for the lengths Russia has gone to, which include threatening to categorize the company itself as an extremist organization. But Meta has now demonstrated in Russia and Ukraine that it has the tools to act fast and forcefully when it wants to. The question now is: Where else in the world should it use them?

  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the most significant geopolitical event since at least the fall of the Soviet Union.
  • But it’s hardly the only place where Meta has a responsibility to keep users safe in the face of widespread violence.
  • How far should the company go to achieve those ends?

Meta is almost certainly going to face pressure to apply these standards far and wide. But as Facebook’s former head of Counterterrorism, Brian Fishman, recently told me, the world should be wary of asking it to do so. “What I worry about is companies being concerned about setting a precedent that they will then be asked to use all the time,” Fishman said. “What we need them to be able to do is set a bar that's really high, and all of us outside understand that that bar is really high.”

— Issie Lapowsky (email | twitter)

This story also appeared in Source Code.

In Washington

The FTC may have found a new way to punish tech companies that violate people’s privacy: forcing them to destroy the algorithms they built with ill-gotten data. The agency has used algorithmic disgorgement in the past to punish Facebook, and now it’s trotting out the same approach with its suit against WW International, formerly Weight Watchers.

The SEC has proposed a rule that could help companies fend off activist investors. The rule would give investors less time to disclose their ownership positions, a change intended to level the playing field for companies. Carl Icahn is not pleased.

U.S. Cyber Command and the European Union deployed experts to Ukraine prior to the Russian invasion to ward off Russian cyberattacks. The move was part of an ongoing effort by the U.S. and EU to help defend Ukraine against the Russian cyberthreat following a 2015 power grid hack.


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In the courts

Apple has filed 215 trademark oppositions since 2019, including against a slew of small businesses. That includes one blogger who did little more than use an apple in her logo. Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and Google filed just 136 oppositions combined during that period.

On Protocol

Search engines are trying to figure out what to do with Russian state media. Microsoft has already said it would derank it in Bing. DuckDuckGo is downranking sites “associated with Russian disinformation,” which drew the ire of the far right. And Google is complying with EU sanctions against RT and Sputnik, but isn’t making any changes to ranking worldwide.

Russia is considering categorizing Meta as an extremist organization after the company changed its hate speech rules to allow for death threats against Russian soldiers. Meta’s president of Global Affairs Nick Clegg has since jumped into damage-control mode, specifying that the changes only apply to people inside of Ukraine, and do not allow for death threats against Vladimir Putin.

Coming tomorrow: We’re expanding our coverage with the launch of Protocol Climate. Protocol Climate will explore how new technologies are being used to tackle climate change — and how the tech industry is reckoning with its own impact on the planet. Click here to sign up for our biweekly newsletter and all of our Protocol Climate updates. And watch your inbox for our first newsletter tomorrow!

In Russia and Ukraine

Ukraine’s Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov wants to create a “digital blockade” in Russia. In an interview with The New York Times, the former tech entrepreneur, who has been calling on Silicon Valley to crack down on Russian propaganda and operations, said, “We believe that as long as Russians are silent that they are complicit to the aggression and to the killing of our people.”

Russian agents threatened a top Google executive at her home last year, giving her 24 hours to get Alexei Navalny’s app removed from the Play Store or face prison time, according to new details in The Washington Post. The agents even followed the executive to a hotel, where she’d been staying under a fake name.

Text messages are emerging as an answer to Russian propaganda. A new website built by Polish programmers allows anyone to send texts to people inside Russia about the war. So far, thousands of people have sent millions of texts.

In the media, culture and metaverse

Some of the top Facebook searches for the numbers 11, 12 and 13 turn up groups actively promoting child predation. Researchers found that of the top 30 results for those search terms, 23 specifically target children, including groups referring to finding a “boyfriend/girlfriend” of that age.

Google ads are still popping up on anti-Ukraine propaganda, according to a new report from the Global Disinformation Index. The group found ads for major brands including Capital One, Audible and Kayak on articles pushing Russian disinformation. One particularly egregious example: a “Help Ukraine” ad from the International Rescue Committee on an article linking Ukrainians to Nazis published on Pravda in Serbia. The company has said it would demonetize state-funded media. It’s also since taken action against some of the pages GDI flagged.

A diamond in the … ranch?

You can now become the proud (?) owner of a 2-carat diamond ring made out of Hidden Valley Ranch. You read that right. According to the eBay description, it was created by “heating Hidden Valley Ranch Seasoning to 2,500 degrees, and then crushing the output beneath 400 tons of pressure.” And it can be yours for … $12,450 and counting.


Technology organizations need to look internally to find the talent they seek by upskilling and reskilling their existing tech workforce. For this vision to become a reality, organizations must focus on being creators, rather than consumers, of talent.

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Thanks for reading — see you Wednesday!

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