The closer we get to the November midterm elections the more we are likely to hear about countries trying to influence them. At this point it’s not really a surprise, though it’s still not something any of us should be happy about.
Of course we are aware of the issue after what happened in the 2016 election, when Russia was discovered to have used all sorts of means to try and influence votes in large part by running a campaign that was waged online. Much if it involved Facebook, who has since promised to try and prevent their platform from being used by foreign actors intent on interfering with our elections.
Last month Facebook reported it had discovered and deleted accounts that were aimed at the upcoming elections. There were 32 pages and accounts on it and on Instagram, and while the company said it had the same markings as the Russian accounts in 2016, they were not 100 percent sure that was who was behind them.
Well, more accounts have been deleted
In keeping with what they have been doing, Facebook on Tuesday announced it had taken down 652 fake accounts and pages that were publishing political content. In this case, the pages were connected to not only Russia, but Iran, too.
According to a blog post by Facebook, they “have not identified any link or coordination between them.” However, they noted that, “they used similar tactics by creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing.”
Further in the post, Facebook explained that they banned the pages and accounts because they want people to be able to trust the connections that are made on the site. They acknowledged the challenge to ensure every account and page is legitimate is ongoing as well as something they still need to improve at.
What did they find this time?
Facebook said the 652 pages they removed targeted people across multiple internet services in the United States, United Kingdom, Latin America and Middle East. Facebook investigated the accounts based off a tip from a cybersecurity firm known as FireEye, who informed them in July about “Liberty Front Press.”
There were ultimately multiple parts of the Liberty Free Press campaign that Facebook uncovered. They learned it was a network of pages and accounts that were concluded to have been linked to Iranian state media, even though aspects of it claimed to be independent of the government.
As it was, Liberty Front Press involved 74 pages, 70 accounts and three Facebook groups, as well as 76 Instagram accounts. It had amassed roughly 155,000 followers, while 2,300 accounts joined at least one of their groups and more than 48,000 accounts followed at least one of the Instagram accounts.
Liberty Front Press also spent $6,000 on ads, all of which were paid for in US and Australian dollars. The first was purchased in January 2015, and the last in August 2018.
What kind of content were the accounts and pages promoting? From Facebook:
Liberty Free Press was also connected to pages that pretended to be news organizations, while at the same time hacking into other peoples’ accounts and spreading malware. The network of pretend news featured 12 pages, 66 accounts and another nine Instagram accounts.
It had about 15,000 Facebook followers and 1,100 Instagram followers, and posted things like this:
There was a third part of Facebook’s investigation, one that found posts about politics in the Middle East, UK and United States.
The campaign, which did what it could to hide any connection the pages had with each other, amassed 140 Facebook accounts and 168 pages to go with 31 Instagram accounts. It had 813,000 followers on Facebook and another 10,000 on Instagram.
In this case, $6,000 worth of ads were bought on Facebook and Instagram, with the payment coming in US dollars, Turkish lira and Indian rupees. The first was bought in July 2012, with the last happening in April 2018.
The pages connected with this also hosted 25 events, and a sample of their postings is below:
As you can see, there was no particular thread or political ideology within the posts.
While all that was centered around Iran, Russia was also putting forth some effort. Unrelated to the Iranian campaign, posts from them focused on the politics in Syria and the Ukraine.
Is this the end?
Facebook said it is working closely with US law enforcement on the investigation, which is ongoing. And if history is any indication, this kind of cyber influence may never truly come to a stop.