Facebook Says It Removed Pages Involved In Deceptive Political Influence Campaign

Jul 31, 2018
Originally published on August 1, 2018 1:51 pm

Updated at 2:20 p.m. ET

Facebook announced Tuesday afternoon that it has removed 32 Facebook and Instagram accounts or pages involved in a political influence campaign with links to the Russian government.

The company says the campaign included efforts to organize counterprotests on Aug. 10 to 12 for the white nationalist Unite The Right 2 rally planned in Washington that weekend.

Counterfeit administrators from a fake page called "Resisters" connected with five legitimate Facebook pages to build interest and share logistical information for counterprotests, Facebook said. The imminence of that event was what prompted Facebook to go public with this information.

In a blog post from the head of Facebook's cybersecurity policy, the company says that those accounts were "involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior" but that their investigation had not yielded definitive information about who was behind the effort.

However, Facebook's top security officials said the campaign involved similar "tools, techniques and procedures" employed by the Russian Internet Research Agency during the 2016 campaign.

There are not many details presented about the origin of these pages, but there is a link established between a page involved in organizing Unite The Right counterprotests and an IRA account.

Facebook noticed that a known Internet Research Agency account had been made a co-administrator on a fake page for a period of seven minutes — something a top Facebook official called "interesting but not determinative."

The actors behind the accounts were more careful to conceal their true identities than the Internet Research Agency had been in the past, Facebook said.

While Internet Research Agency accounts had occasionally used Russian IP addresses in the past, the actors behind this effort never did.

"These bad actors have been more careful to cover their tracks, in part due to the actions we've taken to prevent abuse over the past year," wrote Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy at Facebook. "For example, they used VPNs and internet phone services, and paid third parties to run ads on their behalf."

Both the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate intelligence committee were less reserved about placing the blame for this campaign on the Russian government.

"The goal of these operations is to sow discord, distrust, and division in an attempt to undermine public faith in our institutions and our political system. The Russians want a weak America," said Sen. Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of that committee.

Added Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the panel, "Today's disclosure is further evidence that the Kremlin continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to sow division and spread disinformation."

This most recent political influence campaign consisted of pages with names like "Aztlan Warriors," "Black Elevation," "Mindful Being" and "Resisters."

The pages were created between March 2017 and May 2018 and had a total of 290,000 followers. Over this time period, they generated 9,500 posts and ran 150 ads for about $11,000. They also organized about 30 events, only two of which were slated for the future.

Facebook says it is still in early stages of an investigation and is sharing information with U.S. law enforcement and Congress.

Lawmakers and Trump administration officials have been continuously warning that Russian continues to interfere with the American elections process.

"We expect to find activities focused on the [2018 congressional] midterms as our investigations continue," Gleicher said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon.

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Facebook gave us fresh evidence today that other countries are still trying to interfere in U.S. politics. It announced that it had shut down several accounts and pages that it says were being used to stoke divisions among Americans. Facebook is not saying who was behind the effort, but signs point back to Russia and the same troll farm that was so active ahead of the 2016 election.

NPR's Tim Mak is here with more on the story. Hey, Tim.


CHANG: So what details did Facebook reveal today about these ongoing efforts to disrupt U.S. politics?

MAK: So it said it had disrupted a campaign that involved 32 accounts, Facebook and Instagram accounts that were created between March 2017 and May of this year. And this campaign included an effort to organize counterprotests for a planned white nationalist rally that's happening in Washington, D.C., in a couple of weeks. They used this fake account to reach out to genuine American grass-roots Facebook pages to kind of help organize logistics and build legitimacy and build interest in these counterprotests.

CHANG: And what sort of impact did this campaign have?

MAK: So it's kind of misleading - right? - to think, oh, it's only 32 accounts.

CHANG: Right.

MAK: But the impact is magnitudes larger. So over the last 15 months or so, they managed to attract a total 290,000 followers.


MAK: And they made 9,500 posts. They ran 150 advertisements. And they even organized 30 events. And although Facebook, you know, doesn't track this in the real world - they couldn't vouch for whether the events occurred - people definitely signed up for them.

CHANG: So tell us a little bit about who might be behind this. Did Facebook offer any information on that?

MAK: So they said they weren't able to definitively say who was behind the influence campaign. And they just - they didn't want to be totally conclusive about it. But here's what they did say. They said the campaign involved similar tools, techniques and procedures that were used by the Russian Internet Research Agency during the 2016 campaign. So it follows a same kind of flow. And they also had another kind of tantalizing piece of evidence. For seven minutes, a known Russian Internet Research Agency account was made a co-administrator of one of the fake pages involved in this campaign.

CHANG: OK, so Facebook made this announcement today. It's clearly trying to show it's being proactive about this. But is there any evidence that social media companies are getting any better at stopping this kind of political interference on their platforms?

MAK: You know, Facebook has said they're going to continue to investigate it. And they expect to find more evidence for meddling directly related to the 2018 midterms. We've been warned about this over and over again by lawmakers, by Trump administration officials. Russia isn't done meddling in the American democratic process. We haven't known exactly what form that would take...

CHANG: Right.

MAK: ...But today we learned a little bit in this campaign. And there are other investigations ongoing. But one thing that's really gotten challenging is that this round of political interference has gotten more sophisticated. If it is Kremlin-linked, the Internet Research Agency or whoever was behind this, they're leaving fewer clues. And it's becoming harder for Facebook to track it down.

In the past, the Internet Research Agency occasionally slipped up and they used a Russian IP address, which gives us some clues for the origin of the campaign. But there's no sign of that here. And these actors, they used virtual private networks to mask their identity and third parties to place their - to kind of hide what was going on behind the scenes.

So as their methods get more sophisticated, Facebook will have to get more sophisticated in finding out ways to track it and to stop it. Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, even went so far as to say that this was a arms race.

CHANG: Did they talk about what sophisticated methods they will be using to try to stop future efforts like this?

MAK: They were kind of a little shy in saying exactly how they might track down future efforts because that would give bad actors a way to kind of bypass whatever methods that they're trying to use. But it does involve AI. It does involve pretty sophisticated methods, they say.

CHANG: All right, that's NPR's Tim Mak. Thank you.

MAK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.