Facebook announced on Tuesday that it had identified and removed 32 new pages that violated its ban on “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” suggesting that once again the site was accidentally playing host to an attempt to disrupt U.S. elections. This is the same behavior for which Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted the alleged employees of the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian troll farm accused of interfering in the 2016 president election.
While the company is not yet able to definitively identify the source, the evidence so far seems to speak for itself. At least one of the pages was previously associated with an IRA account disabled in 2017, and was listed as having the same admin for only seven minutes. “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 (IRA) has in the past,” the company wrote in a blog post announcing the discovery. “We believe this could be partly due to changes we’ve made over the last year to make this kind of abuse much harder.”
In 2016, for example, Russian trolls on the site sometimes paid for ads in rupees and occasionally used easily detectible Russian IP addresses. This time, however, the 150 ads developed for the pages were paid for exclusively in U.S. and Canadian dollars by third parties, and the account administrators used virtual private networks (VPNs) and other more sophisticated techniques to disguise themselves.
But the underlying intent, says Facebook, was recognizable.
Ever since the 2016 fiasco, when massive amounts of false news posts were circulated by Russian bots, Facebook has faced widespread international criticism as lawmakers demanded a crackdown on fake accounts. Last week, Facebook lost a record 119 billion dollars on the stock market in a single day, due in part to the continuing fallout from this and its frantic efforts to increase security on the site.
The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab is one of many outside organizations that Facebook has since partnered with in an effort to catch trolls, and to understand and address the site’s weaknesses and combat such abuses. “Through the innovative work of the Digital Forensic Research Lab, we are building a digital solidarity movement, a community driven by a shared commitment to protect democracy and advance truth across the globe,” said the Council’s CEO Fred Kempe.
Republican Senator Richard Burr, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said that the threat of such manipulation on social media was as dangerous as terrorism, WMD’s, or foreign espionage. “Election influence from abroad represents an intolerable assault on the democratic foundation this republic was built on,” he said at a hearing on Wednesday.
Politicians across the board were quick to condemn Russia’s continuing efforts to influence U.S. elections, while some praised Facebook for a timely response to the problem. “Today’s disclosure is further evidence that the Kremlin continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to sow division and spread disinformation,” said Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Committee. Warner also chastised members of the House, saying that lawmakers “need to start pushing ourselves beyond just recognizing the problem and start to push actual policy ideas forward.”
The Secure Elections Act, a bill designed to improve information-sharing between federal and state election officials, is making its way forward in an effort to address the issue. The real problem, however, seems inextricably linked to the policies and preventative measures of the sites themselves.
“Security is an arms race and it’s never done,” said Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in a conference call with the press on Tuesday. “We’ve made it harder for inauthentic actors to operate on Facebook, yet we face determined, well-funded adversaries who won’t give up and who are constantly changing tactics. That means we need to continually improve as well.”