Facebook has identified a “coordinated political influence campaign” to disrupt this November’s midterm elections, the New York Times first reported.
The company announced today that dozens of cryptic Facebook assets had used deceptive tactics to spread awareness of a white supremacist “Unite the Right 2” rally set to occur in Washington, DC next month. Facebook removed eight Facebook pages, 17 Facebook profiles, and seven Instagram accounts in total.
One page was briefly co-managed (for seven minutes) by the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Kremlin-connected troll factory, according to Facebook. Each page spread information about “Unite the Right"—including information about a "Unite the Right" counter-protest—which was founded last year by Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer, and is responsible for the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, VA.
More than 290,000 Facebook accounts followed at least one of the eight pages. The earliest was created in March 2017, and the most recent in May 2018, the company’s head of Cybersecurity Policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, said on a press call today.
The most followed pages were “Black Elevation,” “Mindful Being,” “Aztlan Warriors,” and “Resisters.” Together, they were responsible for at least 9,500 organic posts and ran 150 ads for approximately $11,000 in US and Canadian dollars.
Facebook says it disabled these pages, and will be reaching out to admins. But details about the rally’s location, transportation, and other materials have been widely shared.
Last month, the progressive journalism outlet Unicorn Riot revealed that event organizers like Kessler were using Facebook Messenger to coordinate. Organizers have since disabled the “Unite the Right 2 - DC” event page, and moved their planning efforts elsewhere.
Meanwhile, an event page for “No Unite the Right 2 - DC"—a counter-protest—was removed by Facebook. An archived version shows that it was co-hosted by: “Resisters,” “Millennials for Revolution,” “March to Confront White Supremacy: from Charlottesville to D.C.,” “Workers Against Racism - WAR,” “Smash Racism DC,” and “Tune Out Trump.”
Facebook claims the page was created by the inauthentic "Resisters," but a local coalition called Shut It Down DC, comprised of groups like DC Antifascist Collective and Black Lives Matter DC, says the event has always been authentic. Dylan Petrohilos, who helped to organize it, objected to Facebook's determination on Twitter.
"Not only was their press release inaccurate: the initial founder of the event was Workers Against Racism. Facebook locked local organizers away from organizing against (sadly) homegrown white nationalism and white supremacy," Petrohilos tweeted.
Workers Against Racism told the Daily Beast that a counter-protest had already been planned when they were invited to co-host the event created by "Resisters."
More than 30 Facebook events were created by actors in this set over the past year, Facebook said. Another unnamed event, occurring on Jan. 1, was also removed.
Facebook says that some activity is consistent with IRA methods. But these actors, the company claims, are doing more to conceal their identity, such as using VPNs to spoof their IP addresses, and paying third-parties to run ads on their behalf.
The “Resisters” page, for example, which Facebook deemed inauthentic, relied on admins from five authentic pages to co-host the counter-protest.
Still, Facebook is unwilling to blame Russia outright. “Companies like ours don’t have the necessary information to evaluate [the] political motivations and political goals of nation states,” Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, said on today’s call.
“We don’t know for sure who is behind the activity, which is why we have not named a group or country,” Stamos added.
It’s unclear how closely Facebook is working with lawmakers, but the Times says it’s cooperating with the FBI. Some lawmakers have already categorized today’s revelation as proof of a Russian disinformation campaign.
“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,” Sen. Mark Warner said in a statement.
And the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, with whom Facebook has partnered to combat abuse on its platform, repeatedly references Russia in its autopsy of these events.
"Given Facebook’s conclusion that these accounts were inauthentic, they appear to have constituted an attempt by an external actor — possibly, though not certainly, in the Russian-speaking world — to infiltrate left-wing American communities," the lab wrote in a blog post today.
The Kremlin-connected IRA was previously found to have disrupted the 2016 presidential election. And earlier this year, Facebook said it removed 270 accounts and Pages managed by the IRA.
The type of IRA content shared on Facebook “included commentary on domestic and international political issues, the promotion of Russian culture and tourism as well as debate on more everyday issues,” Stamos said in an April blog post.
Stamos added today that insights gathered in 2016, along with leads and information provided by law enforcement helped Facebook detect this recent activity.
“We don’t want people creating networks of accounts that mislead people about who they are, and what they’re doing,” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, said today. “Security,” Sandberg added, “is an arms race.”
Matthew Gault contributed reporting. This story has been updated.