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Facebook uncovers political disinformation operation ahead of midterm elections

Author: The Washington Post - July 31, 2018 - Updated: August 23, 2018

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The Facebook logo on screens at the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York’s Times Square. Facebook said it has uncovered “sophisticated” efforts, possibly linked to Russia, to influence U.S. politics on its platforms. The company said it removed more than 30 accounts from Facebook and Instagram because they were involved in “coordinated” behavior and appeared to be fake (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

Facebook said Tuesday that it had discovered a sophisticated coordinated disinformation operation on its platform involving 32 false pages and profiles engaging in divisive messaging ahead of the U.S. midterm elections.

The social media company that it couldn’t tie the activity to Russia, which interfered on its platform around the 2016 presidential election. But Facebook said the profiles shared a pattern of behavior with the previous Russian disinformation campaign, which was led by a group with Kremlin ties called the Internet Research Agency.

Facebook briefed congressional aides this week. A congressional aide said that there’s no evidence that political candidates were targeted in the new disinformation effort but that pages and accounts sought to spread politically divisive content around social issues.

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“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,” Facebook said in a post. “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.”

In recent weeks, leaders in the administration, including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, have said that active campaigns were taking place on social media. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The pages Facebook disclosed Tuesday promoted an event pegged as a counter-rally to a far-right march scheduled for next weekend in Washington. Facebook said that the urgency of the upcoming rally prompted them to publicize the information, even though it is in the early stages of an investigation.

The company, which identified the pages two weeks ago and has since removed them, said in June that it had found no such activity.

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The 32 pages found had from 16,000 to 18,000 followers. There was no specific evidence that political candidates were targeted, but one account followed an IRA-associated account for a brief period.

“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,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.). “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.”

In the run-up to the 2016 election, Russian operatives used hundreds of accounts to spread false and divisive messages on issues including gun control and immigration. These messages went viral, reaching more than 100 million Americans.

The revelations, which spilled out last fall, led to congressional hearings and growing calls in Washington to regulate technology giants. A pending bill proposed by Warner, called the Honest Ads Act, would hold technology companies that publish political ads to the same disclosure responsibilities as broadcasters.

“The attribution is going to get increasingly complex, as adversaries are not going to make sloppy mistakes paying for ads in rubles in this next go-round. Also, the playbook is established, so we are seeing domestic ideologues, economically motivated actors and others come in the replicate it,” said Renée DiResta, an expert on disinformation and research director at New Knowledge, a nonprofit advocacy group of technologists that focus on disinformation.

The company has hired thousands of new security staff, partnered with research organizations, and improved its artificial intelligence tools for detecting disinformation.

The Washington Post