Earlier this month, when Facebook executives were asked whether the company had detected any sign of foreign interference in the rapidly approaching 2018 midterm elections, the company hedged. “We know that Russians and other bad actors are going to continue to try to abuse our platform,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, told reporters on a call. “We are continually looking for that type of activity, and as and when we find things, which we think is inevitable, we’ll notify law enforcement, and where we can, the public.” As it turns out, Facebook was already well on its way to identifying a new threat. On Tuesday, the company announced it had detected a campaign to influence November elections by targeting divisive social issues, similar to the effort put forth by the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency in the run-up to the 2016 election. “We’re still in the very early stages of our investigation and don’t have all the facts—including who may be behind this,” the company wrote in a blog post. But, the post continued, “It’s clear that whoever set up these accounts went to much greater lengths to obscure their true identities than the Russian-based Internet Research Agency has in the past.”
Facebook identified 8 Pages and 17 profiles, along with 7 Instagram accounts, that violated its rules. The accounts and Pages were set up between March 2017 and May 2018, and were first discovered about two weeks ago. While they haven’t been definitively tied to the I.R.A. or Moscow, Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos told reporters on Tuesday that an account linked to the Kremlin troll farm was made an administrator of one of the Pages for several minutes before being scrubbed from the site. “Some of the tools, techniques, and procedures of this actor are consistent with those we saw from the I.R.A. in 2016 and 2017,” Stamos said. “We can’t say for sure whether this is the I.R.A. with improved capabilities or a separate group based on what we know today.” There were other differences, too: “While IP addresses are easy to spoof, the I.R.A. accounts we disabled last year sometimes used Russian IP addresses,” Gleicher said. “We haven’t seen those here.”
Similar to disinformation campaigns orchestrated by the I.R.A. in 2016, the group of Facebook Pages sought to capitalize on divisive social issues. Pages such as “Aztlan Warriors,” “Mindful Being,” “Resisters,” and “Black Elevation” were among the most-followed accounts; at least one was followed by more than 290,000 Facebook users. In total, the fake Pages spent approximately $11,000 on about 150 ads on Instagram and Facebook, purchased between April 2017 and June 2018. Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, said the Facebook pages and accounts were removed on Tuesday. The company made the information public in advance of a real-life protest the “Resisters” page had promoted to counter a “Unite the Right” meet-up of white supremacists for next week. Facebook says it also shared its findings with other tech companies, Congress, and U.S. law enforcement.