Dems suspect Russia in new Facebook influence operation

Dems suspect Russia in new Facebook influence operation
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Democrats are pointing the finger at Russia over Facebook’s new disclosure of a political influence campaign ahead of the midterm elections.

The social media giant disclosed Tuesday that it had removed 32 pages and accounts on Facebook and Instagram linked to a coordinated political influence campaign, uncovered through its broader investigation into election interference triggered by Russian meddling in 2016.

And while Facebook hasn’t been definitive in blaming Russian actors for the new campaign, Democrats aren’t being shy about attributing the effort to Moscow.

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Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerOvernight Defense: Trump hits Iranian central bank with sanctions | Trump meeting with Ukrainian leader at UN | Trump touts relationship with North Korea's Kim as 'best thing' for US Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg courts critics on Capitol Hill | Amazon makes climate pledge | Senate panel approves 0M for state election security Zuckerberg woos Washington critics during visit MORE (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the revelation is “further evidence that the Kremlin continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to sow division and spread disinformation.”

House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffPelosi: Whistleblower complaint 'must be addressed immediately' White House officials, Giuliani come to Trump's defense on Ukraine allegations Sunday shows - Trump's Ukraine call, Iran dominate MORE (D-Calif.) said Tuesday that the disclosure “demonstrates what we've long feared: that malicious foreign actors bearing the hallmarks of previously identified Russian influence campaigns continue to abuse and weaponize social media platforms to influence the U.S. electorate.”

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOvernight Energy: California, 23 other states sue Trump over vehicle emissions rule | Climate strike protests hit cities across globe | Interior watchdog expands scope of FOIA investigation | Dems accuse officials of burying climate reports Microsoft to provide free updates for voting systems running Windows 7 through 2020 Interior watchdog investigating political appointees' review of FOIA requests MORE (D-Ore.) said the new efforts “appear to come from the exact same playbook” as the Russian operation in 2016.

“Vladimir Putin is apparently determined to hijack Americans’ outrage against Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump's top adviser on Asia to serve as deputy national security adviser United Auto Workers strike against GM poised to head into eighth day Trump doubles down on call to investigate Biden after whistleblower complaint: 'That's the real story' MORE and his administration for his own purposes: weakening America and ensuring that his corrupt dictatorship can act with impunity around the world,” he said.

GOP lawmakers, including Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrLawmakers applaud Trump's ban on flavored e-cigarettes Trump to hold campaign rally in North Carolina day before special House election Hoekstra emerges as favorite for top intelligence post MORE (N.C.), were hesitant to tie the operations directly to Russia, though Burr noted vaguely in a statement that “the Russians want a weak America.”

Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseManufacturing group leads coalition to urge Congress to reauthorize Ex-Im Bank The Hill's Morning Report - Trump ousts Bolton; GOP exhales after win in NC Trump endorses Sasse in 2020 race MORE (R-Neb.) encouraged Facebook to “continue working to quickly identify who is behind this.”

Facebook cited several instances of the influence campaign seeking to inflame divisive issues, including activity around the "Unite the Right" white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., last summer, according to The New York Times, which first reported on the briefings. It also detected activity related to the "AbolishICE" hashtag, a left-wing social media push to end the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.

The company said it does not have the “technical evidence” to tie the campaign to specific actors, but that it nevertheless has the hallmarks of the previous efforts of the so-called Internet Research Agency — the Russian troll farm that purchased divisive Facebook advertisements ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

Facebook briefed Congress on the new findings in advance of Tuesday’s announcement, including the Intelligence and Judiciary committees in both the House and the Senate.

It was nearly a year ago that Facebook disclosed that the Internet Research Agency purchased $100,000 in political advertisements aimed at amplifying divisive political and social issues ahead of the 2016 vote. The activity was part of a broader plot by Moscow to use cyberattacks and disinformation to interfere in the 2016 election, according to the U.S. intelligence community.

The development led to massive scrutiny of Facebook and other tech companies in Congress, where some lawmakers have pressed for more regulation around online political ads to prevent future influence efforts.

In February, special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerLewandowski says Mueller report was 'very clear' in proving 'there was no obstruction,' despite having 'never' read it Fox's Cavuto roasts Trump over criticism of network Mueller report fades from political conversation MORE indicted 13 Russians and three Russian entities on fraud charges in connection with the Russian troll farm operation.

It is unclear when, or if, Facebook will release more details on the influence effort, including those on who might be involved. The company said it is in the early stages of the investigation and is said to be working with the FBI to understand what happened.  

Lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee will have the opportunity to hear about the developments on Wednesday, during a timely public hearing with testimony from experts on how foreign influence operations leverage social media platforms. No one from Facebook or other social media companies will be present at the meeting.

The Facebook announcement comes amid heightened fears Russia or another foreign actor may seek to influence the upcoming 2018 midterm elections.

Top U.S. intelligence officials have spoken publicly of evidence that Russia is actively using social media and other avenues to sow discord among the American public, though they say the efforts are not specific to certain candidates, campaigns or to the midterms.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said earlier in July that Moscow “continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day” that are “aimed at sowing discord and divisiveness in this country.”

“To me, it’s a threat that we need to take extremely seriously,” Wray said.

Ali Breland and Olivia Beavers contributed.