In the lead up to the 2016 presidential election, the Russian-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) used political ads and posts on Facebook to ignite controversy and sway opinion on issues ranging from religion and immigration, to other hotly-contested topics. Since then, all eyes have been on Facebook: Would the company catch bad actors in the future? And with the midterm elections nearing, were others using Facebook to influence political campaigns?
Today, Facebook revealed that it is in the midst of a current investigation into such attempts and has removed 32 pages and accounts from both Facebook and Instagram that “were involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior.” In other words, these 32 pages and accounts were working in unison to mislead users.
That number might not sound like a lot, but together, the pages, which were created between March 2017 and May 2018, were followed by more than 290,000 accounts, created more than 9,500 posts, and ran 150 ads. According to Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, the most followed pages included “Resisters”, “Black Elevation”, “Mindful Being”, and “Aztlan Warriors.” Many of the examples of posts from the pages, which Facebook included in its Newsroom, appeared to lean left, although Facebook executives did not specify a political party during a press briefing.
The pages were also behind the creation of 30 events, one of which had as many as 1,400 individuals who indicated their intention to attend. The majority of the events have already taken place, but Facebook could not confirm whether its users attended them in person. The events gained legitimacy by connecting with admins for real pages.
One event — “No Unite the Right”, a protest of a “Unite the Right” event — was scheduled to take place in the coming weeks in Washington, D.C. The event had more than 600 users who indicated plans to attend. The event’s close proximity is why Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, says the company shared news of the investigation today. The first pages were identified two weeks ago.
Although some individuals, including Senator Mark Warner, were quick to blame Russia, Facebook says it is in the early stages of the investigation and is not able to attribute the accounts to any one group yet. There is just one indication of ties to the IRA: For a brief seven minutes, a known IRA page was listed as an admin for one of the pages that was taken down today. However, Facebook says this is not strong enough evidence to attribute the coordinated accounts to the group and that it may never be able to find the source of the cyber threats. In their post, Facebook says plainly that they "don't have all the facts."
“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,” a Facebook Newsroom post said of the ongoing investigation. “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."
Facebook is currently working with law enforcement and the Atlantic Council, a think tank focused on international affairs, to investigate these matters further.