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 WarnerDemocrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire Democrats join GOP in pressuring Biden over China, virus origins Senators say they have deal on 'major issues' in infrastructure talks 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 SchiffOfficers offer harrowing accounts at first Jan. 6 committee hearing Live coverage: House panel holds first hearing on Jan. 6 probe Five things to watch as Jan. 6 panel begins its work 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 WydenDemocrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire Democrats release data showing increase in 'mega-IRA' accounts Senate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines 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 TrumpMeghan McCain: Democrats 'should give a little credit' to Trump for COVID-19 vaccine Trump testing czar warns lockdowns may be on table if people don't get vaccinated Overnight Health Care: CDC details Massachusetts outbreak that sparked mask update | White House says national vaccine mandate 'not under consideration at this time' 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 BurrSenate starts infrastructure debate amid 11th-hour drama The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators The 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill 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 SasseBen SasseSasse calls China's Xi a 'coward' after Apple Daily arrest Defunct newspaper's senior editor arrested in Hong Kong Murkowski: Trump has 'threatened to do a lot' to those who stand up to him 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) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel 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.