As the November midterm elections continue to creep closer, you can expect to hear more about attempts to meddle, interfere in or even hack them. It would of course not be the first time it’s happened — we need look no further back than 2016 — and it’s something that the country seems to be somewhat prepared for.
When it happened a couple of years ago, a big part of the misinformation campaign that was waged used Facebook to get the message out. That fact is not the only thing that has damaged Facebook’s brand, but it certainly has done nothing to help.
Needless to say, Facebook has professed a desire to combat the issue, which shows no signs of going away. In fact, the social media site announced that it had uncovered a new campaign that intended to use its network to muddy the waters once again.
What exactly happened?
Facebook in a blog post said it removed 32 pages and accounts from its site as well as Instagram, all of which were, according to them, “involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior.” The accounts, which spanned the two social media outlets that are both owned by Facebook, were connected to protests planned in Washington next week.
Facebook said it cannot be sure of who was behind the campaign, but did note that it was similar to what Russia did around the 2016 election.
“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 site said in the blog post.
The pages had some reach
According to Facebook, more than 290,000 accounts followed at least one of the pages, the earliest of which was created in March 2017. The most recent of them was formed in May 2018.
The pages on Facebook that had the most followers were “Aztlan Warriors,” “Black Elevation,” “Mindful Being” and “Resisters.” The rest of the since-deleted pages had between zero and 10 followers, Facebook said, while the Instagram accounts had yet to earn a follower.
Furthermore, the pages created more than 9,500 organic posts on Facebook, as well as one piece of content on Instagram. They ran roughly 150 ads at a cost of $11,000 on Facebook and Instagram, all of which were paid for in U.S. and Canadian dollars.
Yet while the accounts went to some lengths to try and attract followers, of the 30 events they created since May 2017, about half had fewer than 100 accounts having responded as interested in attending. The largest did attract 4,700 accounts who claimed to be interested, with another 1,400 confirming they would be there.
How did they hide their intentions?
Facebook said these pages used VPNs and internet phone services, along with paid third parties, to run the ads on their behalf. That’s why they cannot say with certainty who is behind it all, though they do see similarities with what Russia did before and after the 2016 election.
They have also found some evidence of connections between the bad accounts and IRA accounts they disabled last year, but admitted there are some key differences too. For instance, they wrote that while IP addresses are easy to spoof, the IRA accounts that were disabled a year ago sometimes used Russian IP addresses.
Those have not been detected here, which is part of the reason why Facebook acknowledges how important it is notice every mistake these bad actors make. In the post, Facebook said it is following up on thousands of leads, many of which result in nothing. Some turn into what we learned now.
Where do things go from here?
Facebook will continue to try and learn the facts. Their discoveries are being shared with law enforcement and Congress, and they are getting help from outside experts in trying to discover and stop the bad actors.
But the idea that they will be able to keep up with and remove every single one in a timely manner is pretty far-fetched. But that does not mean Facebook will not try, and you can expect both them and the bad actors to keep doing what they’re doing up to and through early November.