Facebook has taken down dozens of Facebook and Instagram accounts it says were part of an effort to sow disinformation and manipulate social media users ahead of the 2018 midterms.
As the Washington Post reports, the pages were specifically centered on drumming up opposition to Trump. Just as in 2016, the accounts tried to rally Facebook users behind racial, gender and social issues to spread disinformation and manipulate their followers.
While 32 accounts were shut down, Facebook shared the names of just a handful. Two, “Aztlan Warriors” and “Black Elevation” targeted Latinx and black Facebook users, respectively. Another, “Resisters” (written on Facebook as “reSisters,” according to the Post), tried to draw in feminists. An account called “Mindful Being” was also identified as part of the disinformation effort.
Pages like Aztlan Warriors and Ancestral Wisdom focused on “racial pride and anti-colonial messages for black, Hispanic and Native Americans,” writes the Post. One screenshot from the Resisters page shows a sample post: in it, the account congratulates Los Angeles for abolishing Columbus Day.
As in 2016, by uniting users under a shared identity, the accounts hoped to to capitalize on political divides and later target users with lies closer to the election. One such example from 2016 are posts (shared on Twitter and Facebook) telling social media users they can vote from home or via text for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
NPR reports that Facebook has yet determine the source of the disinformation campaign, but the site’s top security officials say the effort mirrors the “tools, techniques and procedures” used by the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency (IRA) during the 2016 election cycle. In fact, one of the most popular pages taken down by Facebook this week had links to the IRA.
The pages were created between March 2017 and May 2018 of this year, but were operational on Facebook as of Tuesday this week, when they were taken down by the social networking site after they informed law enforcement of the fake accounts.
Facebook shared the information this week in large part because the pages were promoting counter-protests to the planned Unite the Right 2 Rally in Washington, D.C. in August. The rally is expected to draw together the same conglomeration of white supremacists, nationalists and neo-Nazis that gathered last year in Charlottesville, Va. The gathering quickly descended into violence, and one counter-protester was killed by a Unite the Right attendee when he mowed his car into a crowd.
Facebook estimates around 290,000 users saw the ads, events and posts from the various fake accounts taken down this week, according to the Post.
The coordinated effort was described as increasingly sophisticated compared to disinformation campaigns during the 2016 elections. For instance, rather than running ads, the groups focused on promoting events.
From the Post:
Notably, they promoted 30 events, which can be more significant than ads because they seep into real life. The largest of the events, which Facebook hasn’t yet identified, had 4,700 accounts interested in attending, and 1,400 people registered to attend, Facebook said. The Black Elevation page also offered to hire people to promote their events, according to the files that Facebook released Tuesday.
Lawmakers were also notified this week of the operation, and quickly blamed the Russians.
Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on Tuesday, “Today’s disclosure is further evidence that the Kremlin continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to sow division and spread disinformation.”