Cybersecurity

Facebook uncovers the next online election influence campaign

Image: Julia Tim / Shutterstock

Facebook has revealed what it believes to be a coordinated effort by unknown parties using its platform to influence U.S. politics in the lead-up to the 2018 elections.

In a series of July 31 posts on the company’s blog, officials announced that they have identified and disabled 32 Facebook and Instagram pages and accounts with more than 290,000 followers created between March 2017 and June 2018 for “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” The company said its investigation is still in the early stages, that it does not yet know conclusively who is behind the effort and that it has turned its findings over to U.S. law enforcement for further potential action.

Facebook provided 13 examples of photos and posts created by the groups. Nearly all focus on political issues that tend to gain traction with left-leaning audiences, from anti-Trump posts to sentiments about anti-colonialism and women’s rights. One group planned to hold a protest in Washington, D.C., next week to “confront and resist fascism,” with more than 600 users indicating they planned to attend. Facebook said all 32 accounts have been deactivated and it is working on notifying users who liked or followed the pages.

Officials said the activity bears some similarity to what was seen in the lead-up to the 2016 election conducted by organizations like the Internet Research Agency, which was indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in February for conducting disinformation campaigns and electronic warfare. In fact, Facebook said it was initially tipped off to the new campaign while following up on a now-disabled IRA-backed account that shared a Facebook event hosted by one the 32 group pages shut down on July 31.

“Some of the activity is consistent with what we saw from the IRA before and after the 2016 elections. And we’ve found evidence of some connections between these accounts and IRA accounts we disabled last year,” wrote Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook's head of cybersecurity policy.

However, the company said that it does not have conclusive evidence for a high-confidence attribution, noting that “whoever set up these accounts went to much greater lengths to obscure their true identities” than the IRA did in 2016. Unlike the IRA, the new groups used VPNs and internet phone services to cover their tracks while relying on third parties to purchase advertising on Facebook and Instagram.

“We hope to get new information from law enforcement and other companies so we can better understand what happened -- and we’ll share any additional findings with law enforcement and Congress,” Gleicher wrote.

The investigation and findings document just how much Facebook and other social media platforms have altered course when it comes to regulating content on their platforms in the wake of relentless pressure from Congress and the public to do more to combat disinformation campaigns.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg initially called the notion that dissemination of fake news stories on his social media platforms influenced the outcome of the 2016 presidential election “crazy.” However, he has changed his tune considerably as Congress and other governments around the world have begun to further scrutinize his business practices and as steep declines in stock prices and engagement from skeptical users have clouded the company’s future.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), ranking Democrat for the Senate Intelligence Committee, has been a frequent critic of Facebook’s role in spreading misinformation. Shortly after the news was announced, he took to Twitter to congratulate the company, but also stressed that much more needs to be done. Warner also directly attributed the activities to the Russian government, a charge for which Facebook itself had said there is not sufficient evidence.

“I'm glad Facebook is taking some steps to pinpoint & address this activity,” said Warner. “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.”

Correction:  This story originally overstated the amount that had been spent on Facebook and Instagram advertising. The correct amount is $11,000.


About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a senior staff writer at FCW, covering governmentwide IT policy, cybersecurity and a range of other federal technology issues.

Prior to joining FCW, Johnson was a freelance technology journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, GoodCall News, Foreign Policy Journal, Washington Technology, Elevation DC, Connection Newspapers and The Maryland Gazette.

Johnson has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Hofstra University and a Master's degree in public policy from George Mason University. He can be contacted at djohnson@fcw.com, or follow him on Twitter @derekdoestech.

Click here for previous articles by Johnson.


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