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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 August 2018

Facebook identifies political influence campaign ahead of US midterms

Social media platform removes 32 pages and accounts as part of ongoing investigation

Facebook has detected suspicious behaviour on its platform related to the potential influencing of political behaviour of its users. AP Images
Facebook has detected suspicious behaviour on its platform related to the potential influencing of political behaviour of its users. AP Images

Facebook has identified a new co-ordinated political influence campaign to mislead users and organise rallies before November’s United States congressional elections, taking down dozens of fake accounts from its site, the company said on Tuesday.

A Russian propaganda arm tried to tamper in the 2016 United States election by posting and buying ads on Facebook, according to the company and US intelligence agencies. Moscow has denied involvement.

Facebook on Tuesday said it had removed pages and accounts from Facebook and Instagram in part of an effort to combat foreign meddling in US elections — attempts politicians have called dangerous for democracy.

Ad Age reported that the company had removed 32 pages and accounts from both sites “because they were involved in co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour”. The most-followed Facebook pages to be shut down were Aztlan Warriors, Black Elevation, Mindful Being and Resisters.

The social network disabled an event promoted on the Resisters page which was scheduled to protest a "Unite the Right" event in Washington in August.

The company said it was still in the early stages of its investigation and did not yet know who may be behind the influence campaign for 2018 elections that will determine whether or not the Republican Party keeps control of Congress.

Chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said attempts to manipulate public opinion would likely become more sophisticated to evade Facebook’s scrutiny, calling it an “arms race”.

“This kind of behaviour is not allowed on Facebook because we don’t want people or organisations creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they are, or what they’re doing,” the company said in a blogpost.

More than 290,000 accounts followed at least one of the pages and about $11,000 (Dh40,400) was spent on about 150 ads, Facebook said. The pages had created about 30 events since May 2017.

Facebook has been on the defensive for months about influence activity on its site and concerns over user privacy tied to longstanding agreements with developers that has allowed them access to private user data.

The company identified influence activity around at least two issues, including a counter-protest to a "Unite the Right II" rally set next week in Washington. The other was the #AbolishICE social media campaign aimed at the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

In the blogpost, Facebook said it was revealing the influence effort now in part because of the rally. A previous event last year in Charlottesville, South Carolina, led to violence by white supremacists.

Facebook said it would tell users who had expressed interest in the counter-protest what action it had taken and why.

Company officials told the media that a known account from Russia’s Internet Research Agency was a co-administrator of one of the fake pages for seven minutes, but the company did not believe that was enough evidence to attribute the campaign to the Russian government.

Facebook previously said 126 million Americans may have seen Russian-backed political content on Facebook over a two-year period, and that 16 million may have been exposed to Russian information on Instagram.

Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the US House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, in a statement urged Facebook to move against foreign groups trying to sway US voters and to warn legitimate users that such activity, as seen in 2016, is recurring this year.

“Today’s announcement from Facebook demonstrates what we’ve long feared: that malicious foreign actors bearing the hallmarks of previously-identified Russian influence campaigns continue to abuse and weaponise social media platforms to influence the US electorate,” Mr Schiff said.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a Republican, said there would be a hearing on Wednesday about the online threat to US election security.

Mr Burr said the goal of influence operations “is to sow discord, distrust and division in an attempt to undermine public faith in our institutions and our political system. The Russians want a weak America”.

Washington imposed punitive sanctions on Russia following US intelligence agency conclusions that Moscow interfered to undermine the 2016 US elections, one of the reasons US-Russian relations are at a post-Cold War low. Both US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin have said, however, that they want to improve ties between the two nuclear powers.

Facebook disclosed in September that Russians had used the social network under fake names to try to influence US voters in the months before and after the 2016 election, writing about divisive issues, setting up events and buying ads.

US intelligence agencies said Russian state operators ran the campaign combining fake social media posts and hacking into Democratic Party networks, eventually becoming an effort to help Republican candidate Mr Trump, who scored a surprise victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Over the past several months, the company has taken steps meant to reassure US and European politicians that further regulation is unnecessary. Chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg says the company has 20,000 people working to police and protect the site.

Costs associated with that effort are part of the reason Facebook said last week that it expects its profit margins to decline, a warning that sent shares tumbling about 25 per cent, the biggest one-day loss of market cap in US stock market history. Shares of Facebook were up about 1.5 percent in Tuesday’s mid-afternoon trading, part of a broader tech rebound.

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