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Facebook has announced that it has identified a coordinated political influence campaign ahead of November’s midterm elections. They have taken down recently discovered fake accounts on Facebook and on Instagram. In total there were eight Facebook pages, 17 Facebook profiles, and seven Instagram accounts which were created between March 2017 and May 2018 and first discovered two weeks ago.

According to Facebook, they have not identified who, or what country is behind the effort. Whoever is behind the bogus accounts have done a much better job at covering up their trail than the Russians who tried to tamper with the 2016 election. Despite the fact that the perpetrators are unknown, many congressional Democrats are using it as a way to trash the POTUS and are speculating that it’s Russia once again. Truth is Facebook did not explicitly say that the effort was aimed to manipulate the midterm elections in November, but the timing of the bogus activity seems to be aimed at such an attempt.

In a call Tuesday with reporters, Facebook Chief Operating Officer (COO) Sheryl Sandberg and other top company officials confirmed the news. Sandberg said Facebook does not yet know who is behind the campaign, but that the actors went to even “greater lengths to obscure their true identities,” than the Russian and Internet Research Agency (IRA)-linked actors that spread misinformation on the platform before the 2016 presidential election. “Security is an arms race, and it’s never done. We’ve made it harder for inauthentic actors to operate on Facebook. Yet we face determined well-funded adversaries who won’t give up and who are constantly changing tactics,” Sandberg said. “That means we need to continually improve as well.”

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When asked if the bogus accounts were trying to manipulate the election Sandberg said,  “It’s still very early We’re always concerned with inauthentic content.”

The Facebook press release announcement goes into specifics:

We’re still in the very early stages of our investigation and don’t have all the facts — including who may be behind this. But we are sharing what we know today given the connection between these bad actors and protests that are planned in Washington next week. We will update this post with more details when we have them, or if the facts we have change.

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 [the 2016 election] 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. It’s why we’re investing heavily in more people and better technology to prevent bad actors misusing Facebook — as well as working much more closely with law enforcement and other tech companies to better understand the threats we face.

So far it doesn’t seem to be an effort that’s had much success. Per Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s Head of Cybersecurity Policy

  • In total, more than 290,000 accounts followed at least one of these Pages, the earliest of which was created in March 2017. The latest was created in May 2018 [just to put that into perspective, the page of a site such as Hot Air has 804,000 followers, another site Eagle Rising has 685,000 followers on its Facebook page.
  • The most followed Facebook Pages were “Aztlan Warriors,” “Black Elevation,” “Mindful Being,” and “Resisters.” The remaining Pages had between zero and 10 followers, and the Instagram accounts had zero followers.
  • There were more than 9,500 organic posts created by these accounts on Facebook and one piece of content on Instagram.
  • They ran about 150 ads for approximately $11,000 on Facebook and Instagram, paid for in US and Canadian dollars. The first ad was created in April 2017, and the last was created in June 2018 [to put that in perspective those 150 ads were seen by approximately no one]
  • The Pages created about 30 events since May 2017. About half had fewer than 100 accounts interested in attending. The largest had approximately 4,700 accounts interested in attending, and 1,400 users said that they would attend.

One of the fake accounts was running an Anti-Conservative event next week:

The “Resisters” Page also created a Facebook Event for a protest on August 10 to 12 and enlisted support from real people. The Event – “No Unite the Right 2 – DC” – was scheduled to protest an August “Unite the Right” event in Washington. Inauthentic admins of the “Resisters” Page connected with admins from five legitimate Pages to co-host the event. 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.

We disabled the event earlier today and have reached out to the admins of the five other Pages to update them on what happened. This afternoon, we’ll begin informing the approximately 2,600 users interested in the event, and the more than 600 users who said they’d attend, about what happened.

 

Per the NY Times, more coordinated left-wing activity was detected around #AbolishICE, a campaign on social media that seeks to end the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, according to two people briefed on the findings. Perhaps the bogus activity was trying to fan the flames of this effort to make the Democrats look bad, or maybe they were looking to put the U.S. in danger with open borders.

Facebook has not been able to link these bogus accounts to Russia, but they have been able to connect some of these accounts to the fake accounts used in 2016.

And we’ve found evidence of some connections between these accounts and IRA accounts we disabled last year, which is covered below. But there are differences, too. For example, while IP addresses are easy to spoof, the IRA accounts we disabled last year sometimes used Russian IP addresses. We haven’t seen those here.

Christopher Krebs, a Department of Homeland Security cybersecurity official, said Tuesday that DHS has already been in contact with Facebook.  “We’ve been clear across the administration that even though we’re not seeing this sort of activity directed at elections specifically, we continue to see Russian information operations directed at undermining American democracy,” he said.

The good news is that Facebook nipped this in the bud.  Expect more to come out about the fake Facebook accounts, and expect it to be covered right here at Lidblog.

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