Facebook’s days of reckoning in Washington and President Donald Trump’s agitation with perceived political enemies made for a week of grabby headlines from two ubiquitous forces in American life — the social media colossus and Trump’s Twitter account.
A look at the veracity of some of the claims this past week from Trump in tweets and in the White House, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in two days of congressional testimony and Mike Pompeo in his confirmation hearing to become secretary of state:
TRUMP: “I have agreed with the historically cooperative, disciplined approach that we have engaged in with Robert Mueller (Unlike the Clintons!). I have full confidence in Ty Cobb, my Special Counsel, and have been fully advised throughout each phase of this process.” — tweet Thursday.
THE FACTS: Trump’s claim of a steady hand with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of links between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign is at odds with his public musings about firing Mueller and his characterization of the probe as an “attack on our country,” ″fraudulent” and a “WITCH HUNT!”
It’s true, though, that despite his insults and fury with the process, Trump has extended a degree of cooperation. More than 20 White House employees have been made available for interviews with Mueller’s team. The White House has turned over more than 20,000 pages of records while Trump’s campaign has given Mueller more than 1.4 million pages.
Even so, Trump took the extraordinary step in February of allowing the release of a classified memo that he said vindicated him. The memo was by Republicans on the House intelligence committee and concerned FBI surveillance powers. In letting it come out, Trump dismissed forceful pleas from his FBI director and the second-ranking Justice official, Trump-nominated Rod Rosenstein, to keep the memo under wraps because it was inaccurate and lacked critical context.
TRUMP: “Much of the bad blood with Russia is caused by the Fake & Corrupt Russia Investigation, headed up by the all Democrat loyalists, or people that worked for Obama. Mueller is most conflicted of all (except Rosenstein who signed FISA & Comey letter). No Collusion, so they go crazy!” — tweet Wednesday.
THE FACTS: It’s not true that the probe is being conducted by “all Democratic loyalists.”
Mueller is a Republican and some others on his team owe their jobs largely to Republican presidents. Some have indeed given money to Democratic candidates over the years. Mueller could not have barred them from serving on that basis because regulations prohibit the consideration of political affiliation personnel actions involving career attorneys. Mueller reports to Rosenstein.
As to the “bad blood” between the US and Russia, relations have deteriorated for a multitude of reasons including Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine and its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad — not just Mueller’s probe. On Thursday, Pompeo told senators the “historic conflict” between the two countries “is caused by Russian bad behavior.”
POMPEO, at his Senate hearing: “I have never advocated for regime change.” — remarks Thursday on North Korea.
THE FACTS: Not entirely. While he’s avoided saying explicitly he supports a regime change from North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Pompeo has indicated that a leadership change there would be in US security interests. At the Aspen Security Forum in July, Pompeo said he’s “hopeful that we will find a way to separate that regime” from its nuclear capabilities, given its growing stockpile of weapons.
“The North Korea people — I’m sure are lovely people — and would love to see him go as well,” he said.
According to the Financial Times, Pompeo quipped at the event that if Kim “should vanish, given the history of the CIA, I’m just not going to talk about it. Someone might think there was a coincidence.”
ZUCKERBERG: “People have the ability to see everything they have in Facebook, take that out, delete that account and move their data anywhere that they want.” — House hearing Wednesday.
THE FACTS: That’s a stretch.
Users can download a subset of the information collected on them, but not “everything.” And the resulting file is mostly a jumble of contacts, messages and advertisers who have been allowed to target them through Facebook. That makes the information mostly useless for people who want to join a different social network because it’s incomplete and not organized so that another service could easily import it.
Experts say Facebook has made it technically untenable to take user data elsewhere. Researchers have failed to make the data portable because Facebook keeps changing the public-facing software required.
ZUCKERBERG: “There is a setting so if you don’t want any data to be collected around advertising, you can turn that off and then we won’t do it.” — House hearing.
THE FACTS: It’s not that simple. Users can limit ad targeting, but it requires several steps, which may have to be repeated periodically. By default, Facebook shows users ads based on interests they’ve expressed over years, websites they’ve visited and companies they’ve contacted.
You can turn off such targeted ads with a single option in Facebook. Doing so means, for example, that you won’t get an ad on Facebook for a pair of shoes you just looked at on a shopping website, though you’ll still get generic ads.
But that doesn’t stop the data collection. Facebook also targets ads based on demographic information, such as your age and whether you have a child, as well as on what mobile device you use and even your political leanings — even if you’ve not explicitly shared any of that on Facebook.
Turning off those categories must be done one by one. And if you like a new page, click on a new ad or add your email to a new business’s contact list, it all starts over.
ZUCKERBERG: “There may be specific things about how you use Facebook, even if you’re not logged in, that we — that we keep track of, to make sure that people aren’t abusing the systems.” And: “In general, we collect data of people who have not signed up for Facebook for security purposes.” — House hearing.
THE FACTS: Facebook collects data on your online habits wherever it can find you, and very little of it appears to be for security purposes.
Facebook pays third-party websites and apps to let it place tracking code across the internet and mobile devices. That code then reports back to Facebook on your surfing habits to help it better target ads. Along with Google, Facebook is consistently among the top three data-collectors in the field, said Reuben Binns, an Oxford University computer scientist who researches these beacons.
In February, a Belgian court ruled that Facebook had violated European privacy law with such tracking because it hadn’t obtained consent either to collect or store the data.
ZUCKERBERG: “We do not sell data to advertisers. … What we allow is for advertisers to tell us who they want to reach. And then we do the placement.” — Senate hearing Tuesday.
THE FACTS: It’s true that Facebook doesn’t sell user data directly to third parties, but it profits from the information. Advertisers choose the types of users they want to reach and Facebook tailors the ads to those users, based on its vast information about where people live, how old they are and what interests they have. The more specific an audience is, the more Facebook can charge for the ad.
This practice does not mean that user data stays within Facebook. The latest privacy scandal grew out of the revelation that a Trump-affiliated consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, managed to get data on tens of millions of Facebook users through an app that was purportedly a research tool. With apps, Facebook isn’t selling data — it’s giving the data to apps for free.
TRUMP: “So I just heard that they broke into the office of one of my personal attorneys, a good man, and it’s a disgraceful situation.” — comments at a meeting with military advisers Monday.
THE FACTS: It was not a break-in. The FBI executed a search warrant obtained from a judge in conducting the raid and seizing records on a variety of matters, among them a $130,000 payment made to porn actress Stormy Daniels by Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen. The application for the warrant was approved high in the Justice Department.
TRUMP: “They found no collusion whatsoever with Russia.” — referring Monday to the Mueller investigation.
THE FACTS: There has been no such finding. It’s true that evidence of collusion has not emerged to date in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russian figures. But the investigation continues and Mueller does not disclose what his probe has found except when filing charges. Although Trump focused his fury on the Mueller probe, Monday’s raid was overseen by the US Attorney’s office in Manhattan, not the special counsel. Cohen’s lawyer, Stephen Ryan, said the raid was based in part on a referral from Mueller, however.
TRUMP: “Again, they found nothing. And in finding nothing, that’s a big statement.” — referring Monday to the Mueller investigation.
THE FACTS: They found something.
So far, four Trump associates have been charged in Mueller’s investigation, of whom three have pleaded guilty to lying to the authorities. Among them are Michael Flynn, former White House national security adviser, and Rick Gates, a former Trump campaign aide. Overall, 19 people, including 13 Russians, have been charged.
Mueller is known to consider Trump a subject of his criminal investigation at this point. Being a subject in an investigation — instead of a target— suggests Mueller may not be currently preparing a criminal prosecution of the president but considers him more pivotal than a mere witness would be.
To get a warrant, agents and prosecutors must establish for a judge that there’s probable cause of criminal activity and that a search of a property is likely to turn up evidence of that.