As Iowa caucuses arrive, Facebook has a trust problem

Interviews with nearly 30 people across the state show they're worried about the role the social network will play in the 2020 election.

Mark Zuckerberg in Wilton, Iowa, in 2017. Credit: Facebook
This story is part of Elections 2020, CNET's full coverage of the 2020 elections.

On a 20-degree afternoon in late January, icicles hang from the awning of the Wilton Candy Kitchen, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor and soda fountain in eastern Iowa. When I arrive, there are no customers, as could be expected at a sundae shop in the dead of a Midwestern winter.  

It's a world away from the scene here three years ago, when Mark Zuckerberg walked in on a hot June day. As one of his famous New Year's challenges, the Facebook CEO had vowed to travel to every state he hadn't yet visited. One of those places was Iowa, and the Wilton Candy Kitchen, a two-hour drive east of Des Moines, made for the perfect photo op. Tatum Oveson, then a 16-year-old high school student working behind the counter, served the tech billionaire a chocolate malt. Zuckerberg asked about her future. She told him of her dreams to move to Georgia and become a dental hygienist.

Things have changed since then. Oveson, now 19 and about to vote in her first presidential election, decided against dentistry. (She's now studying elementary education at the University of Northern Iowa.) And Zuckerberg has ditched his elaborate New Year's resolutions, which were always an uneasy mix of sincere self-improvement and calculated public relations. Perhaps most importantly, Facebook's standing in society has cratered as it limps from scandal to scandal. Though the social network is still widely used, people don't trust it. It's a point Oveson makes as she relates her concerns that Facebook will be used to spread misinformation during the 2020 election season, which kicks off in earnest with Monday evening's all-important caucuses.

"Facebook does have a lot of bad, untrue news. I'm worried about people reading it and believing it," Oveson says now. "I definitely feel like that is a big thing." 

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Tatum Oveson, who met Mark Zuckerberg three years ago, is now a student at the University of Northern Iowa.

Richard Nieva/CNET

As the eyes of the world turn to the caucuses, I crisscrossed Iowa, speaking with locals about how they get political information online. I interviewed almost 30 people -- young and old, some conservatives, others liberals. I kept my questions open-ended, asking about all social networks, including Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok and Google's YouTube. In almost every conversation, when asked about trust issues with social platforms, Iowans singled out Facebook as the most untrustworthy. More than a handful worried about the effects disinformation circulating on Facebook could have in the caucuses or the general election.

Silicon Valley companies still reel from the fallout of their role in the 2016 US presidential election, when Russian agents used Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to interfere in the contest. The Kremlin's goal was simple: planting disinformation online to sow division in an already-splintering society. Russia exploited the social network to plant both ads and organic posts to peddle conspiracy theories. Even veteran Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth noted last month that the Kremlin had fooled Americans into appearing at real-life rallies over hot-button issues.

Four years on, the US still worries about election meddling. In congressional testimony, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, who conducted a two-year probe into Russia's efforts, told representatives the Kremlin was still at it. And, he warned, others would follow the trail the country had blazed. Republicans and Democrats alike have sounded the alarm, too. In October, the Senate Intelligence Committee released an 85-page report calling for new policies to fight disinformation, including increased coordination between the government and social media companies. 

"While Russia may have been the first to hone the modern disinformation tactics outlined in this report, other adversaries, including China, North Korea and Iran, are following suit," said Richard Burr, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the committee. "Russia is waging an information warfare campaign against the US that didn't start and didn't end with the 2016 election."

'A critical moment'

Facebook says it has invested heavily in fighting disinformation since the last US presidential contest. The company has taken down thousands of accounts and pages, and uncovered coordinated attacks from foreign adversaries including Russia and Iran. In November 2017, Zuckerberg told investors his company was willing to take a hit to profits in order to fix the problem. 

Now Facebook says it has 35,000 people working on safety and security issues, triple the size of its previous efforts. The company has also created an archive of political ads so people can see what has run on the platform in the past. Facebook says it works closely with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security to investigate disinformation campaigns. And the social network points to rapid response centers that will operate throughout all the caucuses and primaries. 

"When Iowans go to caucus this year, they should do so knowing that Facebook has made wholesale improvements to how we approach election security," Nathaniel Gleicher, head of security policy at Facebook, wrote last month in an op-ed for The Des Moines Register. "But you should also know that we're not resting on any progress and continue to find ways to improve."

On an earnings call with analysts last week, Zuckerberg said he feels "confident" about Facebook's preparedness heading into the 2020 election. "This really is a top priority for us," he said.

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Lynn Ochiltree, owner of the Wilton Candy Kitchen. He didn't meet Zuckerberg when the CEO visited, but said he doesn't trust Facebook when it comes to political news.

Richard Nieva/CNET

Still, most of my conversations in Iowa about disinformation led back to one place: Facebook. It's the world's largest social network, with more than 2 billion users, so it's not surprising that its name would be top of mind. But it's hard to ignore the hit Facebook's reputation has taken.

The sentiment is more widespread than Iowa. In a study released last week by the Pew Research Center, almost 60% of survey respondents in the US -- both Democrats and Republicans -- said they "distrust" Facebook as a place to get political and election news. Facebook was the most distrusted of all the platforms included in the survey, including Instagram (which Facebook owns), Twitter and YouTube. More broadly, Americans say disinformation is a bigger issue than crime, racism and other key problems facing the country, according to a separate Pew study from June. Even though they recognize the mess, however, just 9% of Americans place the responsibility on tech companies to fix it, the study found. 

Here's the catch: Even though Iowans, and a vast number of other Americans, express distrust in Facebook, they can't wean themselves off the social network. And some locals told me Iowa is a unique case when it comes to election disinformation. Candidates spend months campaigning on the ground, meeting residents face to face and making personal connections. Social media may have less of an impact on voters than meeting a candidate at a social hall.

Nevertheless, Facebook's got a trust problem as Americans prepare to vote. That could be both heartening and unsettling, experts say. On the one hand, an electorate armed with healthy skepticism could be good for US democracy if that skepticism prompts people to do more research and vet their sources. 

But distrust in a platform that's so widely used could have rippling negative effects, says Graham Brookie, head of the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, which has partnered with Facebook to help combat election interference. Democracy depends on trust in institutions, he says, and Facebook and its ilk are some of the most common ways people engage with society's institutions. If people distrust social media, Brookie says, that could lead to a distrust in democracy. "It's going to get a lot more complicated before it gets less complicated," says Brookie. "This is a critical moment." 

'A very high-stakes election'

Knoxville, Iowa, about 40 miles southeast of Des Moines, is deep in the heart of the red Midwest. Marion County, where the town sits, voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. At the Knoxville Public Library, however, distrust of Facebook is a bipartisan issue. 

Kelsey Hoy, a 26-year-old Republican, and Connie Davids, a 59-year-old Democrat, work the front desk and both worry about the political information people are getting on Facebook. They feel unsettled by the blind posting and reposting of content, even content that isn't true. "As a rule of thumb, it's not a reliable source," says Hoy, who nonetheless maintains an account. "It's everyday people stating opinions as facts." 

One patron, 22-year-old Eliott Heartsill, says he's so distrustful of Facebook that he doesn't have any social media accounts. "I just got an email address," he says, laughing. "That's it." 

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Knoxville, Iowa, in Marion county, which overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump in 2016.

Richard Nieva/CNET

Heartsill, the son of state representative Greg Heartsill, is a Republican. He works at the local Fareway grocery store and helps with the family fence-building business. He doesn't bother with the platform, he says, because people have already made their political decisions and the conversations have become too nasty. "People already know what they want," he says. "Those parties are already dug in. You're not going to change your mind."

To get a feel for what people are posting on Facebook, I enlist the help of Bob Leonard, the news director at two local radio stations. Leonard is a fixture on CNN and in The New York Times when it comes to Iowa political commentary. I ask him to show me the public Facebook pages of a few people he knows around town. One of the pages we scroll through belongs to a particularly ardent Trump supporter. 

Perusing the page, we encounter jokes about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, as well as memes about Muslims and immigrants. As we scroll, we pass an image that's been flagged by Facebook as false. The image carries text that quotes Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden as saying, "No ordinary American cares about constitutional rights." (He didn't make this statement.) To Facebook's credit, the social network has grayed out the post and added a disclaimer: "The primary claims in the information are factually inaccurate." Then it links to a post by PolitiFact that has debunked the bogus quote. 

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Facebook flagged a piece of disinformation about former Vice President Joe Biden.

But there are other fact-checked stories that don't get flagged. One article highlights a Bernie Sanders supporter who supposedly sold his testicles to raise money for the Vermont senator's presidential campaign. If it sounds like satire, that's because it is. Facebook allows satire, but it's a particularly challenging issue for the social network. Irony and humor are extremely personal. 

The article's publisher, NPC Daily, deliberately exploits the almost-plausibility of such stories. "NPC Daily pokes fun of modern journalism and liberalism," according to the site's About page. "If you believe one of our articles is real, it's because the content is not too far adrift from what is published by mainstream news outlets." 

The testicle article is fairly obvious satire, though fact-checking site Snopes still felt compelled to label it false. (Snopes ended its fact-checking partnership with Facebook in February 2019.) But the story illustrates the gray area of believability that purveyors of disinformation operate in, says Gideon Blocq. He's the CEO of VineSight, a company that uses artificial intelligence to detect viral disinformation spreading on social platforms.

Disinformation usually follows major news stories, like the president's impeachment trial, Blocq says. The facts that get manipulated by such disinformation are often subtly tweaked -- enough to be misleading but not so much that they raise red flags. "There has to be a core of truth," he says. 

Experts agree that some of the biggest disinformation threats will come not only from bots and fake accounts created by foreign adversaries, but also from authentic accounts. Those are set up by people who are honest about their identities but still spread lies or false information. They could be both foreign and domestic actors, too, says Renee DiResta, research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory. "There are a lot of different ways it could take shape," she says. "This is a very high-stakes election."

The campaigns of Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana -- all campaigning in Iowa -- didn't respond to requests for comment on what they're doing to combat disinformation. They also didn't respond to questions about Iowans' lack of trust in Facebook and other social networks. However, Warren's campaign on Wednesday released a plan to deal with disinformation, calling for civil and criminal penalties for knowingly spreading false information online when it comes to when and how to vote in US elections.

Mic check

Technology isn't working for Bernie Sanders at the moment. It's Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Des Moines, and the senator is speaking at a rally his campaign has organized at the State Historical Museum of Iowa. Sanders stands in front of a giant American flag, with a foreboding mammoth skeleton a few yards away. It's freezing outside, but inside the air is thick and supporters are hanging on the candidate's every word.

It's going well, except Sanders' microphone keeps cutting out, a glitch he jokingly blames on the president. "Donald Trump will stop at nothing," he tells the crowd, straining his voice to be heard. At one point, he asks the audience to quiet down so he can continue. The crowd dutifully obeys, and the only noise other than the senator's voice is a crying baby. The mic cuts out again while he discusses education reform. 

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Sen. Bernie Sanders at a rally in Des Moines.

Richard Nieva/CNET

"A hundred years ago, people fought for public education, but that was K through 12," Sanders says. "It seems kind of commonsensical that with the changing world economy, changing technology, that when we talk about education, that must mean free tuition at public colleges and universities throughout this country."

The talk of the changing technological and economic landscape, coupled with the malfunctioning sound system, seems an apt metaphor for the complicated relationship many people in the political world have with social media: It's a powerful tool with profound benefits, but it's transforming everything. Facebook has scaled our sense of communication beyond what anyone could have imagined, but it's unpredictable. Along the way our connections are being severed. 

At the event, I ask a young Sanders campaign worker what he thinks about the role Facebook and Twitter are playing in providing news to voters. He laments the opaqueness of their algorithms and says it's frustrating that a few top people in technology are deciding what billions of people see online. "I would really like it if those companies would give their employees more of a say in how their algorithms work, if they had more of a democracy," he says. He asks to not be identified because he isn't authorized to speak for the Sanders campaign. 

It isn't only Sanders supporters who are concerned about Facebook. The next day, Pete Buttigieg holds an event in Muscatine, a city in eastern Iowa that sits on the Mississippi River. 

"I feel like a lot of people share untrustworthy websites and then give people the wrong image or thought," says Emma Sand, a 17-year-old student at the event. (In Iowa, you can caucus if you'll be 18 by election day.) "And then the information they get from a false article could push them to change their mindset, instead of them looking into someone more credible." 

At Simpson College in Indianola, about 20 miles south of Des Moines, students are also wary. Kathryn Hays, a 22-year-old senior at the university, says she thinks Facebook is so effective for spreading disinformation because users are more likely to trust everyday people in their lives, even when they share something that isn't true. 

"You're seeing your friends, you're seeing your colleagues, your old classmates on Facebook," she says. "We're more attached to Facebook." 

'A powerful beast'

Back at the Wilton Candy Kitchen, business picks up a bit as three older men walk in and sit down at the counter. They're regulars. The shop's owner, Lynn Ochiltree, silver-haired and wearing a bow tie, tells one of the men he hasn't seen him for days. "We missed you!" Ochiltree exclaims. 

It's clear why the shop is a perennial campaign fixture. The building went up in 1856. Tchotchkes line the walls, and it sells penny candy I haven't seen for years, like Mallow Cups and Big League Chew. The back room is a shrine to the town's history, with mannequins wearing Wilton baseball, football and track jerseys. The place exudes Americana, and its owners know it. A sign on the wall, in handwritten cursive, reads, "Your patronage is helping us to preserve America's past!"

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The Wilton Candy Kitchen is a staple of small-town Iowa. 

Richard Nieva/CNET

Oveson, who waited on Zuckerberg three years ago, doesn't work here anymore. (I met her in between classes.) But Ochiltree has a lot to say about Facebook, too. He didn't meet Zuckerberg that day because he was out running errands. Still, he's grateful for Facebook as a promotional tool for the Wilton Candy Kitchen, and Zuck's visit gave the shop national publicity. 

Ochiltree doesn't trust political news on Facebook either. He muses that back when Zuckerberg visited, there was speculation he'd one day run for the White House. He shrugs off the idea now, as if somewhat relieved. "I'm not sure that he'd be a great president," Ochiltree says before trailing off. 

But it almost doesn't matter, given how much power Zuckerberg already wields without holding elected office. If Facebook were a country, it would be the largest in the world by far. And that's what really concerns Ochiltree about the flow of news on the platform.

"They're gargantuan. They can touch the lives of so many people so quickly," he says. "If the information isn't correct, it does have a huge effect. It's a powerful beast to be reckoned with." ●

This article originally ran on Jan. 30, 2020.