Facebook once again has been the target of a political influence campaign, months ahead of the November midterm elections.
The social network, still stung by its widely criticized response to Russian meddling in the 2016 election, said Tuesday it had removed 32 pages and accounts from Facebook and Instagram for “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”
The announcement, which did not detail who was behind the accounts, comes as Silicon Valley is still reckoning with how its platforms were exploited during the presidential election to sow discord in American society. Massive declines in Facebook’s and Twitter’s share values in recent days were, in part, the result of efforts to remove fake accounts and tighten security.
Facebook has deployed artificial intelligence tools and hired more human reviewers and security experts in a bid to prevent a repeat of 2016 — even as the White House has refrained from sounding a forceful warning about Russian interference on social media.
“There is a real attempt in the industry to identify and address the issue of suspicious accounts and activity,” said Karen North, a social media expert at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “One of the motivations is that they have to improve the user experience. The other is they have to make some symbolic gesture that they’re trustworthy and no longer allowing users to become victims of Russian meddling or other sinister influence.”
Facebook said the latest revelations were the result of the company’s heightened vigilance. However, it has yet to identify the groups or persons behind the interference because the perpetrators used software and internet phone services to cover their tracks.
The Menlo Park tech company said it is working with law enforcement and has notified outside researchers and Congress.
“Clearly whoever set up the accounts went through much greater lengths,” Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “We face determined, well-funded adversaries.”
Facebook declined to characterize the political motives of the removed pages and accounts, but shared examples that focused on progressive and liberal causes.
One page was called “Aztlan Warriors,” which posted a meme of Native American historical figures such as Crazy Horse and Geronimo that read: “Giving thanks, to our vets in the 500 year war against colonialism.”
Another page called “Resisters” shared a post that said “Women don’t have to” and listed various traits such as “be thin,” “cook for you” and “wear makeup.”
It remains possible that the coordinated effort is being led by Russia’s Internet Research Agency, whose operatives were indicted in February by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III for interfering with the 2016 election.
Facebook said the Internet Research Agency was found to be a co-administrator of one of the removed pages for seven minutes before leaving. That discovery led to the other accounts that were disabled Tuesday.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), vice chairman of Senate Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday he believes the meddling was conducted by Russia.
“Today’s disclosure is further evidence that the Kremlin continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to sow division and spread disinformation, and I am glad that Facebook is taking some steps to pinpoint and address this activity,” Warner said in a statement.
Facebook’s announcement comes a day before Warner’s committee is scheduled to hold a hearing about foreign interference operations on social media.
National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis applauded “private sector partners” for combating “an array of threats that occur in cyber space, including malign influence” to ensure election security.
Facebook said the inauthentic accounts’ activity wasn’t confined to the internet. The pages, they said, also organized 30 events, only two of which had yet to take place.
Half the events had fewer than 100 accounts expressing interest in attending. The largest event drew interest from 4,700 accounts and commitments to attend from 1,400 users.
One event, which was called “No Unite the Right 2 – DC,” was scheduled for Aug. 10 in Washington to protest a follow-up to last year’s deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
It was organized by “Resisters” and co-hosted by five legitimate pages that shared information about how to take transportation to the event. Facebook said it was informing the co-hosts along with 2,600 users who expressed interest in the rally and 600 users who said they’d attend that the organizer was not genuine.
Experts say it matters little which side of the political spectrum internet trolls choose to inflame, so long as their measures are effective enough to heighten conflict.
“They want to agitate and rally people toward a cause,” said Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “The people who are most influenced are hyper-partisan and very emotional.”
Despite being exposed, Watts said meddling on Facebook and other platforms remains a serious threat as long as partisanship runs high. He warned that instigators may not necessarily always be foreign, saying homegrown trolls could be just as likely to spread conspiracy theories such as #Pizzagate and #Pedogate.
“I’m worried about Russia as much as I am about American political activists,” Watts said. “They’re copying the playbook.”
About a million-and-a-half users followed Facebook and Instagram accounts associated with the Internet Research Agency.
By comparison, a total of 290,000 accounts followed at least one of the recently removed Facebook pages, the earliest of which was created in March 2017. The most recent one was created in May.
The majority of the followers belonged to four accounts: “Aztlan Warriors,” “Black Elevation,” “Mindful Being” and “Resisters.”
The removed pages and accounts created 9,500 posts and collectively ran about 150 ads at a cost of $11,000 on Facebook and Instagram, which was paid for in U.S. and Canadian dollars.
Facebook said stricter disclosure rules over advertising prevented the group responsible for the interference campaign from running at least one ad.
“Security is an arms race and it’s never done,” Sandberg said.