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Facebook Uncovers 'Sophisticated' Efforts To Influence Midterm Elections

July 31, 2018 - 1:20 pm
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NEW YORK (WCBS 880/AP) -- Facebook said Tuesday that it has uncovered "sophisticated" efforts, possibly linked to Russia, to influence the midterm elections on its platforms.

The company said it removed 32 accounts from Facebook and Instagram because they were involved in "coordinated" political behavior and appeared to be fake. Nearly 300,000 people followed at least one of the accounts.

The company said it has found eight Facebook pages, 17 Facebook profiles, and seven Instagram accounts. Facebook is working with the FBI to investigate them.

Facebook stopped short of saying the effort was aimed at influencing the U.S. midterm elections in November, although the timing of the suspicious activity would be consistent with such an attempt.

According to a Facebook official, the company this week briefed members of the House and Senate as well as officials at the Department of Homeland Security. The official declined to be named because the briefings were private. Facebook disclosed its findings after The New York Times reported on them earlier Tuesday.

The company said it doesn't know who is behind the efforts, but said there may be connections to Russia. Facebook said it has found some links between the accounts it removed and the accounts created by Russia's Internet Research Agency that it removed before and after the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

“We’ve been hearing for months from American intelligence and law enforcement officials that Russian activity hadn’t ceased in the American political system – and now we’re seeing concrete evidence of it,” Nicholas Fandos of the New York Times told WCBS 880’s Steve Scott and Joe Avellar.

But while it took Facebook months to come to terms with and even acknowledge the foreign influence campaign that was happening on its platform, this time, an admission and corrective action came right away, Fandos noted.

“They say they discovered these accounts just a couple of weeks ago, were able to link them together, and were able to shut those pages down this morning after they had already alerted the FBI and lawmakers here on Capitol Hill,” he said.

Ian Sherr of CNET told Scott that unlike in 2016, it is not quite as easy to link the latest efforts to Russia.

“One of the hardest parts about this is that it’s really hard to tie this to the Russian meddling that happened back in 2016 in the same way that you were able to in the past,” he said. “You know, a lot of unique identifiers that would make it clear that these were Russians – whether it’s the IP addresses, right, the individual kind of numbers that are associated with computers around the world – those are being hidden. You know, the money that’s being spent on advertisements is actually being paid in U.S. dollars and in Canadian dollars, not rubles.

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, called the disclosure "further evidence that the Kremlin continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to sow division and spread disinformation."

The earliest page was created in March 2017. Facebook says more than 290,000 accounts followed at least one of the fake pages. The most followed Facebook pages had names such as "Aztlan Warriors," ''Black Elevation," ''Mindful Being," and "Resisters."

Facebook didn't provide detailed descriptions of those pages. But the names it released are reminiscent of groups set up by Russian agents to draw in and manipulate Americans with particular ethnic, cultural or political identities ahead of the 2016 election. That effort targeted people with both liberal and conservative leanings.

Facebook says the pages ran about 150 ads for $11,000 on Facebook and Instagram, paid for in U.S. and Canadian dollars. The first ad was created in April 2017; the last was created in June 2018.

The company added that the perpetrators have been "more careful to cover their tracks" than in 2016, in part because of steps Facebook has taken to prevent abuse over the past year. For example, they used virtual private networks and internet phone services, and paid third parties to run ads on their behalf. After it became clear that Russia-linked actors used social media to try to influence the 2016 U.S. election, Facebook has stepped up its efforts to ensure that what happened then does not happen again. But the disruptors are stepping up their efforts as well.

"We face determined, well-funded adversaries who will never give up and are constantly changing tactics," Facebook said in a statement.

But Fandos said the tactics used were actually very similar to those used in 2016 when it comes to picking up on hot-button or divisive political issues or drawing attention to them.

“So in one prominent case here, an account created an event page for a counterprotest to a ‘unite the right’ rally that’s supposed to take place here in just a couple of weeks. That was a commemorative rally to mark the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville rally and riots last year. So this page was meant to attract liberals and lefties and others to protest this, which creates, as you can imagine, some of the grisly confrontations that we saw last year. It turned out in that case, the Russians were working, in some cases, with real American groups, and you know, we understand that there likely is to be a real counterprotest to this event, Russians or not,” Fandos said. “So they were kind of fanning the flames there, and they did so on other issues as well.”

Further, while a few dozen accounts may not sound like a lot, they had their share of eyes on them – though nowhere near the level of the propaganda posted in 2016.

In 2016, trolls would create accounts that did all sorts of things that were not necessarily overtly political, but became more political over time as people were drawn to the pages, Sherr explained.

“And so these posts that Facebook identified (in the latest crackdown) seemed to be in that recruiting stage, where they’re trying to get people to follow them by posting stuff that really doesn’t seem that overtly political or offensive, but over time could have become,” Sherr said.

During a conference call Tuesday, Facebook executives declined to paint a broader nature of the pages, including whether they included a range of political positions. They also did not say whether any of the activity mentioned specific candidates or politicians, and were careful to say that Facebook is not "publicly" linking the activity to any group or government.

California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said more work needs to be done before the midterm elections. "Foreign bad actors are using the exact same playbook they used in 2016," he said. They are "dividing us along political and ideological lines, to the detriment of our cherished democratic system."

President Donald Trump has offered mixed message on Russian interference, at times even calling it a "hoax." After appearing to question whether the Russians would try again to interfere earlier this month, he acknowledged last week in a tweet that the midterms were a likely target. But he said that Democrats, not his fellow Republicans, would be the ones targeted.

(© 2018 WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)