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Twitter, Facebook see new tactics in foreign disinformation efforts

Twitter, Facebook see new tactics in foreign disinformation efforts
© OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

Officials from Twitter and Facebook said Thursday that while they have not seen any “coordinated” efforts by malicious foreign groups to spread disinformation around the 2020 elections, the groups' tactics are changing and evolving.

“We have seen a change in tactics, and this in part is because of the success that we’ve had in clamping down on the inauthentic platform manipulations,” Nick Pickles, the director of global public policy strategy and development at Twitter, testified during a House Intelligence Committee virtual hearing.

Pickles gave the example of online Chinese actors unfavorably comparing the heavy U.S. police response to recent protests over the death of George Floyd to crackdowns on protesters in Hong Kong. 

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“That shift, from platform manipulation to overt state assets, is something that we have observed, and it reminds us we have to be vigilant that the challenges we faced in 2016 aren’t constant, and that this remains an evolving security challenge,” Pickles testified. 

Nathaniel Gleicher, the head of security policy at Facebook, testified that his team was seeing “inauthentic behavior” around the COVID-19 pandemic and in connection to recent protests over the death of George Floyd.

“We definitely see the tactics in this space evolving, and we see the threat actors trying new efforts to get around the controls that are put in place,” Gleicher said. 

He emphasized that while Facebook has not seen any “coordinated inauthentic behavior” from foreign nations targeting voting or voting systems, it was “definitely something we are monitoring.”

Facebook has seen other coordinated foreign activity that it has removed this year. Gleicher testified that Facebook had removed 18 inauthentic networks this year including three based in Russia, two from Iran, and two based in the United States. He also said Facebook removed around 1.7 billion fake accounts from its platform between January and March.  

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“We are up against determined adversaries, and we will never be perfect, but we will continue our vital work to stop bad actors and give people a voice,” Gleicher testified. 

Heavy pressure was put on social media companies following the 2016 elections to make changes and weed out foreign influence operations. 

Former 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, along with U.S. intelligence officials, concluded that the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) conducted a sweeping campaign designed to sow discord in the U.S. and sway public opinion against Democratic presidential nominee and former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden prepares to confront Putin Ending the same-sex marriage wars Trump asks Biden to give Putin his 'warmest regards' MORE.

Facebook estimated in 2017 that around 146 million people may have been exposed to Russian-linked content on both Facebook and Instagram in the run-up to Election Day, while many more were exposed to this content on Twitter.  

Social media groups have stepped up, instituting new guidelines on how to flag, and sometimes take down, content from malicious foreign actors. Facebook on Wednesday rolled out a massive voter registration campaign on its platforms to help Americans gain access to election resources.  

Earlier this week the persistence of the disinformation threat was demonstrated when social media analysis group Graphika published research that found Russian disinformation group “Secondary Infektion," which targeted the 2016 election, is still active and targeting U.S. officials and other governments.  

On Capitol Hill on Thursday, Rep. Lauren UnderwoodLauren UnderwoodMcAuliffe looms large as Virginia Democrats pick governor nominee For The People Act will empower small donors and increase representation in our democracy In honor of Mother's Day, lawmakers should pass the Momnibus Act MORE (D-Ill.) introduced legislation designed to bolster federal efforts to defend against disinformation, particularly in light of increasing disinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonHillicon Valley: Biden gives TikTok and WeChat a reprieve | Colonial Pipeline CEO addresses Congress again | Thomson Reuters shareholders want review of ICE ties Colonial Pipeline may use recovered ransomware attack funds to boost cybersecurity Democrats debate shape of new Jan. 6 probe MORE (D-Miss.) praised the legislation, which would require the Department of Homeland Security to develop methods to identify disinformation and assess the impact of misleading posts on American preparedness for threats.  

“The proliferation of disinformation - whether on public health information or our elections - is a clear national security threat. When we face an emergency, it is imperative we ensure the truth gets through,” Thompson said in a statement. “The Federal government must do more to combat the misinformation threat and help states and localities do the same.”

Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee did not participate in the virtual hearing on Thursday, an issue Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffPelosi: Trump DOJ seizure of House Democrats' data ' goes even beyond Richard Nixon' Ex-DOJ official Rosenstein says he was not aware of subpoena targeting Democrats: report Nixon's former White House counsel: Trump DOJ was 'Nixon on stilts and steroids' MORE (D-Calif.) said was “unfortunate.”

“Election day is a mere five months away, and malicious actors including Russia, but also others, persist in attempts to interfere in our political system in order to gain an advantage over our country and undermine our most precious right, that to a free and fair vote,” Schiff said.

Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellEx-DOJ official Rosenstein says he was not aware of subpoena targeting Democrats: report DOJ to probe Trump-era subpoenas of lawmaker records The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Sights and sounds from Biden's UK visit MORE (D-Calif.) warned the officials testifying Thursday, which also included a top Google executive, to be prepared for elections this year.

“I am afraid a storm is coming, and we all need you to be ready,” Swalwell said.