As Facebook continues to face scrutiny for its role in spreading misinformation, the company announced Tuesday that it has detected a coordinated campaign to influence November’s midterm elections. Facebook divulged the findings to Congress and the White House this week, and the company says it has removed 32 pages from its network. “We’re still in the very early stages of our investigation and don’t have all the facts — including who may be behind this,” Facebook said in a blog post announcing the findings. “But we are sharing what we know today given the connection between these bad actors and protests that are planned in Washington next week. We will update this post with more details when we have them, or if the facts we have change.”
Though Facebook has not been able to determine from which country the campaign originated, it is strikingly similar to the 2016 efforts of Russia’s Internet Research Agency in how it played on divisive issues in American society. In May, the Senate Intelligence Committee released thousands of Facebook ads purchased by the IRA prior to the 2016 election, many of them focused on Black Lives Matter, alleged Clinton corruption, immigration and gun control. The latest influence campaign detected by Facebook has centered its efforts around issues like last year’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville and the current movement to abolish ICE. Here’s an example of one of the protests the “bad actors” had been planning, which Facebook included in the blog post announcing the findings:
“It’s clear that whoever set up these accounts went to much greater lengths to obscure their true identities than the Russian-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) has in the past,” Facebook wrote. “We believe this could be partly due to changes we’ve made over the last year to make this kind of abuse much harder. But security is not something that’s ever done. We face determined, well-funded adversaries who will never give up and are constantly changing tactics. It’s an arms race and we need to constantly improve too.”
Though Facebook has until now mostly deflected questions about whether it has detected Russian efforts to influence the midterms, there’s little doubt the nation is still seeking to tip the scales of America’s democratic process. Earlier this month, after Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the indictments of 12 Russian intelligence officers for hacking into Hillary Clinton’s campaign and other Democratic networks prior to the 2016 election, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said “the warning lights are blinking red” and that “the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.” A week later at the Aspen Security Forum, Microsoft executive Tom Burt revealed that Russian intelligence outfit GRU is already targeting at least three candidates running for office this November. Last week, the Daily Beast reported that Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) was targeted by a Russia-connected phishing operation.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) did not hesitate to connect the new campaign to Russia. “Today’s disclosure is further evidence that the Kremlin continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to sow division and spread disinformation, and I am glad that Facebook is taking some steps to pinpoint and address this activity,” Warner said Tuesday. “I also expect Facebook, along with other platform companies, will continue to identify Russian troll activity and to work with Congress on updating our laws to better protect our democracy in the future.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, also invoked Russia while commenting on the findings.
Adam Schiff: "Today's announcement from Facebook demonstrates what we've long feared: that malicious foreign actors bearing the hallmarks of previously-identified Russian influence campaigns continue to abuse and weaponize social media platforms to influence the U.S. electorate."
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) July 31, 2018
Nathan Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, wrote on Tuesday that the company first identified the accounts two weeks ago, and removed them Tuesday morning after completing an initial investigation. He also noted that more than 290,000 Facebook accounts followed at least one of the pages, either on Facebook or Instagram. The pages were created as early as March 2017 and as late as May of this year. The pages generated around 9,500 organic posts and paid for around 150 ads. Since May 2017, they created 30 event pages, including the “No Unite the Right 2” rally scheduled to take place August 10th.
The announcement comes as Facebook continues to reckon with the role it played in the 2016 election. Not only did Russia’s IRA use the social network to influence the election, but Cambridge Analytica, the now-defunct research firm hired by the Trump campaign, harvested the data of tens of millions of users, resulting in Congress calling on CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Earlier this month, Facebook was fined $500,000 by the British Information Commissioner’s Office for failing to properly guard the personal information of its users. On Tuesday, a group of U.K. residents whose data was obtained by Cambridge Analytica threatened to sue, serving the social media giant a 27-page letter accusing it of violating British privacy regulations. In the United States, the company is currently under investigation by America’s Federal Trade Commission for privacy violations stemming from the Cambridge Analytica breach.