A new social-media influence campaign that Facebook divulged on Tuesday provides fresh evidence suggesting the Kremlin or others are seeking to magnify the anger felt by groups on the fringes of American society, even to the point of provoking physical clashes.
Facebook said it had removed 32 pages and accounts from its own social-media platform and that of Instagram, and that all were part of a coordinated campaign with a link to the Russian-based Internet Research Agency accused of meddling in the 2016 presidential election
Some of the accounts taken down Tuesday — bearing such names as “Aztlan Warriors,” “Black Elevation,” “Mindful Being” and “Resisters” — already have a significant reach into American society. Facebook said at least 290,000 accounts followed at least one of the pages, which was not identified.
Foreign powers mounting the influence campaigns are targeting minorities, white supremacists, and regional voters, according to testimony to be delivered Wednesday to the Senate intelligence committee by an Oxford University social media expert.
“The goal is to get groups of voters to confront each other angrily, over social media and in the streets,” Philip N. Howard, of the Oxford Internet Institute, will say, according to a copy of his prepared remarks given to McClatchy. “Video content, edited and taken out of context, makes new immigrants seem like a threat to veterans, or tells one community that the police need our support while telling another that police are abusing them.”
Howard said Russia is not the only actor meddling in U.S. politics now and won’t be in the future.
“We can expect a growing number of foreign powers to develop disinformation campaigns for single issues and legislative campaigns, not just elections,” Howard said.
Much of the disinformation is likely to be aimed “at African-American voters, Muslim-American voters, white supremacist voters, and voters in Texas and the southern states,” he said.
Several politicians on Capitol Hill said Facebook’s latest announcement about foreign manipulation of its platforms underscores the way Russia and other countries seek to stir the pot of racial, ethnic and other divisions in the United States.
“Russia and China understand that successful information operations don’t create new problems but exploit existing fissures,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican.. “That’s why Moscow is working to divide Americans by stoking both sides of nearly every culture war.”
Facebook executives said they had briefed federal law enforcement agencies and the congressional intelligence committees on its findings.
“We don’t want organizations or individuals creating networks of accounts that mislead people about who they are or what they are doing,” Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said in a conference call.
The new revelations come as Facebook faces both pressure on Wall Street and on Capitol Hill, where legislators want it to police itself more rigorously against foreign meddling. Last week, the company saw more than $100 billion erased from its market value as investors punished the stock amid reports that user growth had slowed.
Facebook executives said the company first noticed coordinated pages two weeks ago and as they investigated further found that the organizers were more sophisticated at disguising themselves than those involved in the case of the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg, Russia-based “troll farm” from 2015 until mid 2017. It was the focus of a Justice Department indictment in March accusing a dozen Russians and their financial backer — Yevgeniy Prigozhin — interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, including using fake U.S. personas.
In mid-July, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officers on charges that they hacked into the Democratic National Committee and other Democratic offices to sway the 2016 presidential election in favor of Donald Trump.
“Our team has determined that these actors have gone to greater lengths to hide their identities,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy at Facebook, adding that they used virtual private networks and internet phone services, rather than exposing their locations. Third parties ran ads on their behalf, spending at least $11,000.
But an account set up by the Internet Research Agency was found to be a co-administrator of one of the newly identified accounts “for only seven minutes,” Facebook said, showing a link between the activity. Facebook declined to directly accuse Russia of organizing the network.
Facebook said the new campaign was found to have spent $11,000 for about 150 ads on Facebook and Instagram between April 2017 and June of this year. Some of the ads called on Americans to attend political events. The accounts shuttered Tuesday focused exclusively on engaging Americans on the left end of the political spectrum.
Those pages taken down by Facebook and linked to the malicious campaign included postings under the banner “Aztlan Warriors” appearing to target Mexican immigrants. One of the posts said, “Be proud of who you are” amid images of ancient Aztec warriors. Another group called itself “Resisters” — sometimes spelled “reSISTERS” — and promoted “feminist activism against fascism.”
One posting showed an image of a emotionally charged President Donald Trump in front of a Nazi flag. Another posting from June 12 said, “Women do not have to” and listed a number of activities, “be thin, cook for you, have long hair, wear makeup, be feminine,” and more.
Part of what caught attention at Facebook was the foreign network’s call for a counter-rally in Washington DC Aug. 10 and Aug. 12 against a planned “Unite The Right 2” rally. The original “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, saw neo-Nazis march under torch light, and fight with their opponents. One person was killed when a far-right supporter rammed his vehicle into a crowd.
The fake posting, under the banner “Confront + Resist Fascism,” urged followers to meet at 3 p.m. Aug. 10 and continue actions through Aug. 12 at Freedom Plaza on Pennsylvania Avenue, and seemed designed to provoke confrontation and possible violence . The “Unite The Right 2” rally will take place Aug. 12 just a few blocks away, at Lafayette Square outside the White House.
Among the parties Facebook said it had shared the fake accounts with was the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council, a think tank with offices in Washington. The Lab’s mission is to identify, expose and publicize disinformation campaigns.
In a statement, the Lab said those behind the latest influence campaign followed a strategy: “They maintained a focus on building an online audience then translating it to produce events — such as protests — in the real world.”
Similarities between the latest influence operation and the one mounted by the Internet Research Agency between 2014 and 2017 were notable, the statement said.
“Similarities included language patterns that indicate non-native English and consistent mistranslation, as well as an overwhelming focus on polarizing issues at the top of any given news cycle with content that remained emotive rather than fact-based,” it said. The group noted syntactical errors characteristic of native Russian speakers, such as an inability to use articles like “the” and “an,” and confusion about singular and plural verb forms.
Lee Munson, a security researcher at Comparitech.com, said that the lasting feeling that Russia is the only nation with an interest should be dispelled because no-one knows that for a fact.
“Whether Facebook can genuinely stamp out any shenanigans this time remains to be seen,” he said. “Artificial intelligence is only as good as its programming, and I suspect the social media giant does not have anywhere near enough human reviewers on its payroll.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this article left the timing of a “Unite the Right 2” protest and a counter-rally unclear. They will coincide in Washington DC on Aug. 12, not Aug. 10.