Washington: The world’s biggest social network Facebook on Tuesday announced removal of 32 pages and accounts from its platform and its photo-sharing site Instagram, claiming they were involved in “coordinated” inauthentic behaviour and attempted to sway public opinion on political issues ahead of November mid-term elections in the US.
“This kind of behaviour is not allowed on Facebook because we don’t want people or organisations creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they are, or what they’re doing,” it said. Noting that it is still in the very early stages of its investigation and don’t have all the facts – including who may be behind this, the Facebook said it is clear 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.
“We believe this could be partly due to changes we’ve made over the last year to make this kind of abuse much harder,” the social media giant said, noting that it faces determined, well-funded adversaries who will never give up and are constantly changing tactics. “It’s an arms race and we need to constantly improve too,” it said. Senator Mark Warner, Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said Facebook’s disclosure is further evidence that Russia continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to sow division and spread disinformation.
“I am glad that Facebook is taking some steps to pinpoint and address this activity. I also expect Facebook, along with other platform companies, will continue to identify Russian troll activity and to work with Congress on updating our laws to better protect our democracy in the future,” Warner said. Facebook said it all started two weeks ago when it identified the first of eight pages and 17 profiles on its social media site, as well as seven Instagram accounts, that violate its ban on coordinated inauthentic behavior. All of them were removed this morning once it completed its initial investigation and shared the information with US law enforcement agencies, Congress, other technology companies, and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, a research organisation that helps it identify and analyze abuse on Facebook.
In total, more than 290,000 accounts followed at least one of these Pages, the earliest of which was created in March 2017. The latest was created in May 2018. The most followed Facebook pages were “Aztlan Warriors”, “Black Elevation”, “Mindful Being”, and “Resisters”. The remaining pages had between zero and 10 followers, and the Instagram accounts had zero followers, it said. According to the Facebook, they ran about 150 ads for approximately USD 11,000 on Facebook and Instagram, paid for in the US and Canadian dollars.
The first ad was created in April 2017, and the last was created in June 2018. The pages created about 30 events since May 2017. About half had fewer than 100 accounts interested in attending. The largest had approximately 4,700 accounts interested in attending, and 1,400 users said that they would attend, it said. “These bad actors have been more careful to cover their tracks, in part due to the actions we’ve taken to prevent abuse over the past year,” it said. For example, they used virtual private networks (VPNs) and internet phone services, and paid third parties to run ads on their behalf.
Noting that it still doesn’t have firm evidence to say with certainty who’s behind this effort, Facebook said that some of the activity is consistent with what it saw from the IRA before and after the 2016 elections. “We have found evidence of some connections between these accounts and IRA accounts we disabled last year, which is covered below. But there are differences, too. For example, while IP addresses are easy to spoof, the IRA accounts we disabled last year sometimes used Russian IP addresses. We haven’t seen those here,” it said.