WASHINGTON: Facebook announced on Tuesday that it has identified a coordinated political influence campaign, with dozens of inauthentic accounts and pages that are believed to be engaging in political activity around divisive social issues ahead of November’s midterm elections.
In a series of briefings on Capitol Hill this week and a public post on Tuesday, the company told lawmakers that it had detected and removed 32 pages and accounts connected to the influence campaign on Facebook and Instagram as part of its investigations into election interference. It publicly said it had been unable to tie the accounts to Russia, whose Internet Research Agency was at the center of an indictment earlier this year for interfering in the 2016 election, but company officials told Capitol Hill that Russia was possibly involved, according to two officials briefed on the matter.
Facebook said that the accounts — eight Facebook pages, 17 Facebook profiles, and seven Instagram accounts — were created between March 2017 and May 2018 and first discovered two weeks ago. Those numbers may sound small, but their influence is spreading: More than 290,000 accounts followed at least one of the suspect pages, the company said.
Between April 2017 and June 2018, the accounts ran 150 ads costing $11,000 on the two platforms. They were paid for in American and Canadian dollars. And the pages created roughly 30 events over a similar time period, the largest of which attracted interest from 4,700 accounts.
Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, said that the activity bore some similarities to that of the Internet Research Agency, but that the actors had better disguised their efforts, using VPNs, internet phone services and third parties to purchase ads for them. He said the company had yet to see any evidence connecting the accounts to Russian IP addresses, like the ones sometimes used in the past by Internet Research Agency accounts. But there were also connections between some of the accounts and others tied to the notorious Russian troll farm that were taken down by Facebook already.
“These bad actors have been more careful to cover their tracks, in part due to the actions we’ve taken to prevent abuse over the past year,” Mr. Gleicher said.
The company has been working with the F.B.I. to investigate the activity.
Like the Russian interference campaign in 2016, the recently detected campaign dealt with divisive social issues.
Facebook discovered coordinated activity around issues like a sequel to last year’s deadly “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. Specifically, a page called “Resisters,” which interacted with one Internet Research Agency account in 2017, created an event called “No Unite the Right 2 — DC” to serve as a counterprotest to the white nationalist gathering, scheduled to take place in Washington in August. Mr. Gleicher said “inauthentic” administrators for the “Resisters” page went as far as to coordinate with administrators for five other apparently real pages to co-host the event, publicizing details about transportation and other logistics.
Mr. Gleicher said it disabled the event on Tuesday and notified 2,600 users of the site who had indicated interest in attending the event.
Coordinated activity was also detected around #AbolishICE, a left-wing campaign on social media that seeks to end the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, according to two people briefed on the findings. That echoed efforts in 2016 to fan division around the Black Lives Matter movement.
Democratic lawmakers said the disclosure only clarified what they have feared since the extent of Russian involvement in 2016 became clear more than a year ago.
Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee who has exerted intense pressure on the social media companies, praised Facebook on Tuesday for bringing the activity into the public but asked for its cooperation in updating laws to prevent influence campaigns.
“Today’s disclosure is further evidence that the Kremlin continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to sow division and spread disinformation,” he said. “And I am glad that Facebook is taking some steps to pinpoint and address this activity.”
After being caught flat-footed by the Internet Research Agency’s efforts to use social media to sow division ahead of the 2016 presidential election, Facebook is trying to avoid a repeat disaster in 2018. The company has expanded its security team, hiring counterterrorism experts and recruiting workers with government security clearances.
The company is using artificial intelligence and teams of human reviewers to detect automated accounts and suspicious election-related activity. It has also tried to make it harder for Russian-style influence campaigns to use covert Facebook ads to sway public opinion, by requiring political advertisers in the United States to register with a domestic mailing address and by making all political ads visible in a public database.
On a conference call with reporters earlier this month, Mr. Gleicher declined to directly answer multiple questions about whether the company had detected additional Russian information campaigns.
“We know that Russians and other bad actors are going to continue to try to abuse our platform — before the midterms, probably during the midterms, after the midterms, and around other events and elections,” Mr. Gleicher said. “We are continually looking for that type of activity, and as and when we find things, which we think is inevitable, we’ll notify law enforcement, and where we can, the public.”
American intelligence and law enforcement officials have been warning for months that Russia’s efforts to undermine American democracy remain active and pose a threat to this year’s elections. If in fact Russian, the activity would provide vivid evidence that the kind of cyber operations used around the 2016 campaign were still in use.