Facebook said on Tuesday it had discovered the first co-ordinated disinformation campaign aimed at influencing the US midterm elections, but stopped short of accusing Russia of orchestrating the attempt to interfere in American democracy.
Facebook said it had removed 32 pages and accounts from Facebook and Instagram that were involved in “co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour”. Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer, said it was sharing the information now because one page was promoting a protest scheduled to take place in Washington next week.
“Security is an arms race and it is never done,” Ms Sandberg said on Tuesday.
The company has been working with the FBI to address attempts to interfere in the November elections. Facebook has been co-operating with the law enforcement agency since the discovery that a group called the Russian Internet Research Agency had sought to sow division among US voters during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Facebook said almost 300,000 people followed at least one of the pages that have been removed. The pages, created between March 2017 and May 2018, ran about 150 ads at a cost of roughly $11,000, but Facebook said the operatives had not been able to run ads since the introduction of a new system to verify political advertisers.
The social network did not accuse Russia of orchestrating the campaign. But Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said it was clearly the work of the Kremlin.
“Today’s disclosure is further evidence that the Kremlin continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to sow division and spread disinformation,” said Mr Warner, adding that Facebook and other companies should “continue to identify Russian troll activity and to work with Congress on updating our laws to better protect our democracy”.
Dianne Feinstein, a senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the discovered showed that “Russia and other outside actors continue to weaponise social media platforms to foment chaos and sow discord within the United States”.
The revelation came two weeks after President Donald Trump faced intense criticism for not siding with US intelligence agencies — which believe Russia interfered in the 2016 election — during his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader denied that Moscow meddled in the election, but conceded that he had wanted Mr Trump to win because he had advocated improving ties between the countries.
The latest move by Facebook comes as lawmakers continue to express concern about potential efforts to interfere with the congressional elections — over everything from attempted disinformation campaigns to efforts to tamper with the actual vote.
One congressional aide said lawmakers and the administration were hampered in efforts to prevent interference since they lacked the kind of expertise and information about cyber activity on social networks that companies such as Facebook possessed.
“There is nobody in the federal government that has a handle on what is going on,” the aide said shortly after Facebook’s announcement.
Another congressional aide said lawmakers were worried that a lack of leadership from the White House over how to tackle cyber threats was sending a signal to adversaries that Congress and congressional campaigns were a “soft target”.
Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the US election, this month charged 12 Russian intelligence officers with hacking Democratic groups. In February, he indicted the Russian Internet Research Agency, accusing it of using social media to promote causes such as Black Lives Matter and to spread allegations of voter fraud.
The pages identified by Facebook in its disclosures on Tuesday included one that tried to stir up tensions by organising a counter-protest to a “Unite the Right” event in Washington on August 10-12. Inviting people to “No Unite Right 2 — DC”, they posted information on locations and transport to encourage people to attend.
Facebook will now inform these potential attendees that the page was part of the co-ordinated campaign. In total, the newly suspended pages created 30 events, which about 4,700 people marked themselves as interested in attending. Some 28 of these events had dates that had already passed, but Facebook did not comment on whether they had taken place. Another event was not scheduled until next January.
The company said the actors had gone to much greater lengths to hide their true identities than the Russian IRA operatives had in the past, using virtual private networks and internet phone services and recruiting third parties to run ads on their behalf. It warned that it may never be able to identify the source of the disinformation campaigns with the same level of certainty as it did with the Russian IRA.
Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cyber security policy at Facebook, said the company had first identified the accounts two weeks ago and had removed them all on Tuesday.
“As we’ve told law enforcement and Congress, we still don’t have firm evidence to say with certainty who’s behind this effort,” said Mr Gleicher. “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.”
Mr Gleicher noted there were differences between the two efforts, as well. “While IP addresses are easy to spoof, the IRA accounts we disabled last year sometimes used Russian IP addresses,” he said. “We haven’t seen those here.”
The most-followed Facebook pages that have been suspended were “Aztlan Warriors”, “Black Elevation”, “Mindful Being”, and “Resisters”. Facebook uncovered the pages because one of the IRA accounts that it disabled in 2017 shared a Facebook event hosted by the “Resisters” page and one of the admins for the page previously had an IRA account for just seven minutes.
The Resisters page posted anti-Trump content, including a post showing the president tweeting, with a caption: “If Trump wants to beat Barack Obama’s Twitter record for the most liked tweet he only needs to tweet 2 words ‘I resign’”.
Facebook said there were several mentions of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that has been heavily criticised for separating parents and children at the border with Mexico.
Both the Resisters page and the Black Elevation page, which included imagery of the late Black Panther leader Huey Newton, advertised vacancies for part-time event co-ordinators.