WASHINGTON — Facebook shut down more than two dozen “inauthentic” accounts and pages on Tuesday that sought to inflame social and political tensions in the United States, and said their activity was similar — and in some cases connected — to that of Russian accounts during the 2016 election.
The action marked the social media giants first significant acknowledgment of an ongoing, coordinated propaganda campaign on its site since it implemented new safeguards after the 2016 vote.
The company disclosed these steps to lawmakers and the White House in a series of briefings this week, according to a source who attended one of the sessions. More than 290,000 Facebook users followed the now-shuttered pages, which were created between March 2017 and May 2018. The most followed — titled “Aztlan Warriors,” “Black Elevation,” and “Mindful Being” — reached more than 290,000 users.
The topics also included the hashtag #AbolishICE, a popular new rallying cry on the left following outrage over the Trump administrations separation of immigrant families along the Mexican border.
The accounts also ran about 150 ads on Facebook and Instagram, at a cost of $11,000 paid in U.S. dollars. One of the ads was created as recently as last month. Of 30 events created by the accounts since May 2017, most had fewer than 100 people interested in attending. But one was substantial, collecting 4,700 interested and 1,400 confirmed attendees.
Though the company said it couldnt conclusively identify the source of the phony pages, company officials said they resembled the activity of the Kremlin-connected Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, whose top officials were indicted earlier this year by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for seeking to disrupt the 2016 presidential election.
“Some of the activity is consistent with what we saw from the IRA before and after the 2016 elections. And weve found evidence of some connections between these accounts and IRA accounts we disabled last year,” the company wrote in a memo posted on its website Tuesday afternoon.
Facebook suspended 32 accounts and pages in all.
Muellers indictment of 13 IRA officials described a large-scale disinformation campaign intended to sow social division and impersonate Americans in order to interfere with the 2016 campaign, largely to harm Hillary Clintons chances. As part of that effort, these Russian “trolls” exacerbated divisions among Democrats by highlighting progressive causes and candidates.
In its briefings and blog post, Facebook emphasized that it couldnt conclusively attribute the latest wave of misleading Facebook accounts to Russia, in part because the actors took more sophisticated steps to cover their tracks.
“Its 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. “We believe this could be partly due to changes weve made over the last year to make this kind of abuse much harder.”
However, Facebook also indicated that at least one of the events hosted by a page titled “Resisters” had been shared by an IRA account that Facebook disabled in 2017. “Resisters” also briefly listed an IRA account as one of its administrators, a slip that helped Facebook identify the false account and the other 31 pages and profiles it deleted Tuesday morning.
Facebooks disclosure comes days after President Donald Trump seemed to say that Russians are not actively interfering in the U.S. political process. Trump has faced withering bipartisan criticism for repeatedly questioning his own intelligence agencies conclusions that Russia was behind an interference effort in 2016 and was poised to do so again in this years elections.
Most recently, Trump infuriated his critics when he said he believed Russia would interfere in the 2018 election on behalf of Democrats.
“Based on the fact that no president has been tougher on Russia than me, they will be pushing very hard for the Democrats,” he tweeted. “They definitely dont want Trump!”
In a statement Tuesday, a top Senate Democrat insisted the Russian government was behind the newly-revealed activity.
“Todays disclosure is further evidence that the Kremlin continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to sow division and spread disinformation, and I am glad that Facebook is taking some steps to pinpoint and address this activity,” said Senator Mark Warner, (D-Va.), the vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “I also expect Facebook, along with other platform companies, will continue to identify Russian troll activity and to work with Congress on updating our laws to better protect our democracy in the future.”