Facebook uncovers 'sophisticated' efforts to influence the US midterm elections
Facebook set off a firestorm yesterday, announcing that it had uncovered "sophisticated" efforts, possibly linked to Russia, to manipulate US politics and by extension the upcoming midterm elections.
The company was careful to hedge its announcement; it didn't connect the effort directly to Russia or to the midterms, now less than 100 days away. And its findings were limited to 32 apparently fake accounts on Facebook and Instagram, which the company removed because they were involved in "co-ordinated" and "inauthentic" political behaviour.
But official Washington went ballistic anyway, not least because the reported activity so closely mirrored Russian influence efforts during the 2016 presidential election. Nearly 300,000 people followed at least one of the newly banned accounts and thousands expressed interest in events they promoted.
"This is an absolute attack on our democracy," said Virginia senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee and one of several lawmakers Facebook had briefed in advance. "I can say I think with pretty high confidence that I think this was Russian related."
A spokesman for Senate judiciary chairman Chuck Grassley said Facebook had informed his office that "a limited group of Russian actors has attempted to spread disinformation using its platform and that the affected groups are affiliated with the political left".
The identified accounts sought to "promote divisions and set Americans against one another," wrote Ben Nimmo and Graham Brookie of the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab. The non-profit is working with Facebook to find and analyse abuse on its service.
The perpetrators, Facebook noted, have been "more careful to cover their tracks" than in 2016, in part because of steps Facebook has taken to prevent abuse over the past year.
For example, they used virtual private networks and internet phone services to mask their locations, and paid third parties to run ads on their behalf.
Chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said the attempts to manipulate public opinion would likely become more sophisticated to evade Facebook's scrutiny, calling it an "arms race."
"This kind of behaviour is not allowed on Facebook because we don't want people or organisations creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they are, or what they're doing," the company said.
After it became clear that Russia-linked actors used social media to try to influence the 2016 US election, Facebook has escalated countermeasures intended to prevent a repeat. It has cracked down on fake accounts and tried to slow the spread of fake news and misinformation through outside fact-checkers. The company has also announced new guidelines around political advertisements, requiring disclosure of who paid for them and keeping a database.
While the company would not say who is behind the efforts, Facebook said it uncovered links between the accounts it just deleted and those created by Russia's Internet Research Agency in the 2016 influence effort.
For example, the Atlantic Council's researchers noted "language patterns that indicate non-native English and consistent mistranslation, as well as an overwhelming focus on polarising issues. .
The accounts seemed focused on building up an online audience and moving it to offline events, such as protests.
The earliest page was created in March 2017. Facebook says more than 290,000 accounts followed at least one of the fake pages.
Facebook says the pages ran about 150 ads for $11,000 on Facebook and Instagram, paid for in US and Canadian dollars. The first ad was created in April 2017; the last was created in June 2018.