Facebook announced that it has discovered a coordinated political influence effort on its platforms ahead of the US midterm elections, today, July 31. It has not linked the campaign to any specific group or country, but said the activity of the suspicious accounts was consistent with that of Russian state actors during the 2016 US election, and, in one case, connected to them. The perpetrators were, however, better at hiding their identities this time around.
Facebook uncovered eight pages, 17 profiles, and seven Instagram accounts, identifying the first of them “about two weeks ago,” Nathaniel Gleicher, the company’s head of cybersecurity policy, outlined in a post. They were all removed following Facebook’s investigation. More than 290,000 users followed at least one of the pages, which were created between March 2017 and May 2018. The pages ran about 150 ads, which cost around $11,000, paid for in US and Canadian dollars.
The accounts created more than 9,500 organic posts, and the most popular pages were “Aztlan Warriors,” “Black Elevation,” “Mindful Being,” and “Resisters.” The company shared examples of posts from these accounts.
The pages created about 30 events. It’s not clear whether the events occurred in real life—most were scheduled for some time within the past year, and two were supposed to take place in the next few months. The company’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said on a call with reporters that Facebook was sharing results of the investigation today because one of the events was scheduled to happen next week. Users who said they were attending or interested the event would be informed about the developments, the company said.
The company says the event was created by a page called the “Resisters” and was a counter-protest to the “Unite the Right” rally in Washington DC, scheduled for August 12. The malicious actors were co-hosting the event with several legitimate pages, Facebook said. “These legitimate Pages unwittingly helped build interest in ‘No Unite Right 2 – DC’ and posted information about transportation, materials, and locations so people could get to the protests.” Some of the organizers from the other groups took issue with Facebook’s characterization:
Another event was a protest against the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, but the company would not say whether all the events were anti-right-wing in character.
The company was careful not to attribute the attack to particular actors. “We do not have enough technical evidence to state definitively who is behind this,” Gleicher said. Facebook did find that there was a connection to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Russian-backed group accused of spreading misinformation during the last US election. A “known IRA account,” was a co-administrator for one of the pages for a total of seven minutes, executives said on the call.
The actors are better at covering their tracks than they were previously, the company said. It had not uncovered any Russian IP addresses behind the accounts in question.