Facebook announced Monday it had blocked 115 accounts engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behavior” and linked to foreign entities — just hours before polls opened for the critical midterms.
Facebook was alerted to the activity on 30 Facebook pages and 85 Instagram accounts by law enforcement agents Sunday, raising the spectre of the Kremlin’s hand in another U.S. election.
The seriousness of the information was reflected in the speed with which the social network responded.
“Typically, we would be further along with our analysis before announcing anything publicly,” Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy said in a statement Monday night. “But given that we are only one day away from important elections in the U.S., we wanted to let people know about the action we’ve taken and the facts as we know them today.”
Facebook said it needed more time to ascertain whether the accounts are linked to the Internet Research Agency — the Kremlin’s “troll factory” run out of St. Petersberg that was instrumental in the 2016 disinformation campaign against the U.S.
Gleicher revealed that while the majority of the Instagram accounts were in English — posting about politics and celebrities — the Facebook pages were posting in Russian and French.
One expert who has been tracking online disinformation campaigns for years pointed out that the mix of languages within the network could help identify the origin of the attack.
“Most of the inauthentic activity we’ve seen online before in French came from the Iranian information operation, rather than a Russian one,” Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told VICE News. “It’s too early to say anything on the attribution, but the language angle will be one to watch.”
Ahead of the midterms, social media companies have come under pressure to prevent a repeat of 2016 — but so far efforts by Facebook and Twitter have been underwhelming.
A new ad transparency tool rolled out by Facebook has been shown — repeatedly — to be easily gamed while researchers this week pointed out that Twitter now has 5 percent more false content than it did during the 2016 election.
While the Trump administration has sought to downplay the impact of disinformation on the midterms, federal agencies have pulled no punches in their assessment of the ongoing threat from Russia.
In a joint statement issued hours before the polls opened, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the FBI warned about Russia’s ongoing efforts to influence the outcome of the vote.
“Americans should be aware that foreign actors — and Russia in particular — continue to try to influence public sentiment and voter perceptions through actions intended to sow discord. They can do this by spreading false information about political processes and candidates, lying about their own interference activities, disseminating propaganda on social media, and through other tactics.”
Cover image: Facebook logo seen displayed on smart phone. (Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)