Facebook reveals evidence to Congress of new disinformation campaign ahead of midterm elections

Facebook has revealed a new coordinated disinformation campaign ahead of November's elections that used dozens of fake accounts and pages on its platform.

The company said it has removed 32 pages and accounts across Facebook and Instagram involved in "inauthentic behavior" after discovering them last week.

It has briefed lawmakers on its discoveries and has been working with the FBI on the matter since discovering the accounts last week.

“We're still in the very early stages of our investigation and don't have all the facts — including who may be behind this,” Facebook said in a post.

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“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 added.

The news of the coordinated campaign is likely to raise new fears of interference in this fall's midterm elections, which are already taking place in the shadow of the fight over Russian interference in the last election.

Facebook told lawmakers in a series of briefings this week that the new efforts could have been conducted by Russia but that it has not been able to confirm this, according to a report in The New York Times.

Facebook said in its post on Tuesday 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 Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency was responsible for a significant amount of election interference efforts in 2016. The group successfully organized events intended to sow discord among the public, including an anti-Trump event attended by thousands in New York City.

The social media company did say that while it lacked the “technical evidence” to attribute blame directly, it found that misinformation strategies carried the hallmarks of the IRA’s previous efforts.

“Some of the activity is consistent with what we saw from the IRA before and after the 2016 elections. And we've found evidence of some connections between these accounts and IRA accounts we disabled last year,” Facebook said explaining one case in which one of the inauthentic pages briefly had an admin who was also an admin in IRA page from 2016.

On a conference call with reporters, Facebook said that it used a “range of leads” similar to this to detect inauthentic accounts.  

Facebook has come under enormous scrutiny since the 2016 election, with some critics blaming it for failing to police its site during the last presidential campaign. 

Despite Facebook saying that it cannot yet attribute responsibility for the inauthentic accounts to specific groups, the top Democrat in the Senate Intelligence Committee Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerFacebook reeling after damning NYT report On The Money: Trump, Senate leaders to huddle on border wall funding | Fed bank regulator walks tightrope on Dodd-Frank | Koch-backed groups blast incentives for corporations after Amazon deal Schumer told Warner to back off of Facebook: report MORE (Va.) pointed the finger at Russia.

“Today’s disclosure is further evidence that the Kremlin continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to sow division and spread disinformation, and I am glad that Facebook is taking some steps to pinpoint and address this activity,” he said in a statement on Tuesday.

Fellow committee Democrat Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley: Russian-linked hackers may have impersonated US officials | Trump signs DHS cyber bill | Prosecutors inadvertently reveal charges against Assange | Accenture workers protest border enforcement work | App mines crypto for bail bonds Dems demand answers from AT&T, Verizon and Sprint on internet throttling claims Warren, 2020 Dems target private immigration detention center operators MORE (Ore.) also pinned the blame on Russia saying, “Vladimir Putin is apparently determined to hijack Americans’ outrage against Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpMia Love pulls ahead in Utah race as judge dismisses her lawsuit Trump administration denies exploring extradition of Erdoğan foe for Turkey Trump congratulates Kemp, says Abrams will have 'terrific political future' MORE and his administration for his own purposes: weakening America and ensuring that his corrupt dictatorship can act with impunity around the world.” 

Warner’s Republican counterpart on the committee, Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrRand Paul blocking Trump counterterrorism nominee Senate panel seeks interview with Steve Bannon, lawyer says Dems can use subpoena power to reclaim the mantle of populism MORE (R-N.C.) was more hesitant to attribute blame, but told reporters he expected more findings to come and said that he was among the lawmakers Facebook briefed on the matter this week.

The House Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffHeads up, GOP: Elections have consequences Top Dems: DOJ position on Whitaker appointment 'fatally flawed' House Dems launching probe into Whitaker's role in company government deemed a 'scam' MORE (D-Calif.) said in a statement that Facebook’s findings are evidence that “much more work needs to be done before the midterm elections to harden our defenses.”

Facebook's executives were grilled by Congress earlier this year after Facebook acknowledged that Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting and data company with links to political donors to Trump, had gained access inappropriately to data from as many as 87 million Facebook users.

In the briefings this week, Facebook gave several examples of attempts to manipulate its platform, including around the time of the Unite The Right white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., last summer.

It also found evidence of manipulation related to the #AbolishICE hashtag.

Both efforts, it said, were in line with previous Russian efforts to fan the flames of tension around social issues in the U.S.

The newly revealed fake Facebook pages created 500 organic posts on Facebook and one piece of content on Instagram.

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

The pages created about 30 events, some of which were highly attended, according to Facebook RSVPs.

The largest had approximately 4,700 accounts interested in attending and 1,400 users said they would attend.

Facebook said that to mask efforts, those setting up the pages used VPN services, internet phone services and paid third parties to run ads, to obfuscate who was actually operating the pages.

According to the company, most of the pages it has recently suspended had small followings of up to 10 followers. Several of the pages, however, had a following totaling 290,000. The highly followed pages included “Aztlan Warriors,” “Black Elevation,” “Mindful Being” and “Resisters.”

The “Resisters” page, for example, connected with admins from five legitimate Facebook pages to create a “No Unite the Right 2 - DC,” a response event to the planned “Unite The Right” follow up event in Washington, this August.

More than 2,500 Facebook users had marked that they were “interested” in the event, and more than 500 said they would attend. Facebook said that it will notify those who planned to attend about what happened.

The company said on its Tuesday press call that it’s staying vigilant about other attempts to manipulate its platform in advance of the midterms.

“Security is an arms race and it’s never done,” said Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

Updated at 2:23 p.m.