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Facebook confirms discovery of new ‘inauthentic’ social media campaign ahead of US midterm elections

Facebook confirms discovery of new ‘inauthentic’ social media campaign ahead of US midterm elections


It’s happening again

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Illustration by James Bareham / The Verge

Facebook announced today that it’s identified and banned suspicious accounts that engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” some of which may be designed to influence the US midterm elections scheduled for November. News of the impending announcement was first reported by The New York Times. It is unclear which organization or country is behind the campaign, although the Times reports that Facebook officials who briefed lawmakers this week said Russia may be involved. As for those behind the accounts and suspicious behavior, Facebook said in a call with reporters this afternoon that it did not have enough technical evidence to state who was behind the operation.

Facebook discovered activity designed to inflame tensions around divisive topics like the rise of white supremacy in America and the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. In particular, Facebook found suspicious accounts engaging in coordinated activity around the #AbolishICE movement and a second “Unite the Right” meet-up of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, an organized protest that devolved into violence and resulted in the murder of counter-protestor Heather Heyer.

Facebook declined to say whether the goal was to influence the midterm elections

In its call with reporters today, Facebook executives declined to say whether the activity was definitively aimed at influenced midterm election outcomes. Rather, it “focused on a range of activities,” according to Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy. But the company felt the need to disclose the findings with lawmakers and the public ahead of a scheduled August 10th left-wing protest in Washington, DC that was coordinated by one of the inauthentic accounts and related to the one-year anniversary of the “Unite the Right” protest.

Facebook says it shut the event down and contacted the five other authentic administrators who were enlisted to help run the event to inform them of the situation. More than 600 users said they would attend the event, while more than 2,600 users listed themselves as “interested.” Facebook intends to every one of those users about what happened.

Following The New York Times’ report, Facebook published a series of blog posts outlining its removal of 32 Pages and accounts and from the main Facebook app and Instagram that were “involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior.” The company’s posts do not mention election interference or influence. They do, however, lay out the potential ties to advanced state-sponsored actors:

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. 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. It’s why we’re investing heavily in more people and better technology to prevent bad actors misusing Facebook — as well as working much more closely with law enforcement and other tech companies to better understand the threats we face.

Gleicher says the company identified eight Pages, 17 profiles, and seven Instagram accounts. Around 290,000 people followed at least one of the Pages, the earliest of which was created in March 2017. More than 9,500 organic posts were created by these Pages and accounts, and $11,000 were spent to run 150 ads between April of last year and June 2018. The Pages also created 30 events on Facebook, some of which racked up thousands of confirmed attendees. It’s unclear if the events ever occurred or if the intention was to simply gauge interest in real-world meet-ups around certain topics.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted to his personal page following the briefing, writing publicly that “security isn’t a problem that you ever completely solve,” and echoing statements from other executives that the company is engaged in an arms race with bad actors looking to misuse the platform:

One of my top priorities for 2018 is to prevent misuse of Facebook. We build services to bring people closer together and I want to ensure we’re doing everything we can to prevent anyone from misusing them to drive us apart. That’s why we’re investing so heavily in security -- including more people and better technology -- and working with law enforcement as well as other tech companies so we’re better prepared for these threats.

Security isn’t a problem you ever completely solve. We face sophisticated and well-funded adversaries, including nation states, that are always evolving and trying new attacks. But we’re learning and improving quickly too, and we’re investing heavily to keep people safe.

Facebook also disclosed a series of sample posts from the banned accounts:


Following coordinated election interference from Russia’s IRA before, during, and after the 2016 US election, Facebook has come under heavy scrutiny for how it polices its platform for fake news, propaganda, and other malicious activity committed by third parties. The criticism has only intensified as the US heads toward the midterms, and Facebook has made an effort to prepare its products and moderation strategy for any manipulation.

The company disclosed its four-pronged approach to defend against election interference back in March, saying it would work with the FBI and outside security experts, weed out fake accounts using artificial intelligence, increase political ad transparency, and reduce the spread of fake news by employing more human fact-checkers. Facebook is also working with researchers to study social media-based election interference, with the goal of better understanding how it functions and how to stop it.

Facebook outlined a four-pronged approach to defend against election interference

Earlier this month, on a separate call with reporters, Facebook executives, including Gleicher, declined to reveal any information about evidence related to upcoming election interference. “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,” Gleicher said at the time. “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.”

Last week, President Donald Trump made a stunning about-face regarding Russia election interference, a topic he has repeatedly tried to undermine publicly, by claiming on Twitter that he is now “very concerned that Russia will be fighting very hard to have an impact on the upcoming Election.”

Trump created an international controversy earlier this month in Helsinki, Finland, when he publicly suggested he believed claims of innocence from Russian president Vladimir Putin, who was standing next to him onstage, over the the findings of US intelligence agencies, all of which unanimously agree that Russia had a hand in trying to influence the 2016 US election.

In response to the announcement, Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) released a statement saying “today’s disclosure is further evidence that the Kremlin continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to division and spread disinformation.”

Update July 31st, 1PM ET: Added additional details from Facebook’s blog posts.

Update July 31st, 1:40PM ET: Added additional information form Facebook’s press briefing. The headline has also been updated to reflect the fact that Facebook says it is too early to tell whether the campaign was intending to influence the midterm elections.

Update July 31st, 2:38PM ET: Added statement from CEO Mark Zuckerberg.