The United States midterm elections are set to happen in November but Facebook has already detected coordinated attacks in a pattern similar to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian-based group with ties to the Kremlin.
The coordinated political influence campaign on Facebook and Instagram, resulted in various accounts, 32 to date, to be removed and blocked from the social media platforms.
The accounts were found to be pushing American political stances and organizing protests, some of them were against the “United the Right” rally and some linked to the movement #AbolishICE, which seeks the shutdown of the Immigration and Customs Agency, amidst an immigration scandal storm that led migrant children being separated from their families.
According to Facebook officials, while the deleted accounts were highly protected and it is near impossible to connect them to their functional operators, there is a huge chance this was a coordinated attack by IRA, since it was quite similar to the Russian-backed content which was accessed by almost 126 million Americans during the 2016 presidential election.
But to prove the propagandist campaign during the 2016 presidential election was Russian was much easier than it is this time around.
The accounts back then had used Russian IP addresses, sometimes paid for advertisement in Russian currency, rubles. However, the recently deleted accounts had reportedly used virtual private networks (VPNs) and advertisements were paid by third parties in U.S. and Canadian dollars.
“At this point we don’t have enough technical evidence to state definitively who is behind this, but they have shown similar activity and have connected with known IRA accounts,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cyber-security policy.
However, some slip-ups have alerted Facebook security personnel of Russian involvement.
Case in point: One infamous IRA account was the co-admin of one the recently deleted pages for mere minutes before it was removed and blocked from the platform.
But Facebook’s chief security officer Alex Stamos is still not naming names.
“We think that is interesting but not determinative,” he said.
According to Stamos, there still was not enough evidence to determine whether this was just “IRA with improved capabilities or a separate group.”
Even though, Facebook has not exactly rendered the attacks Russian-backed, political leaders have already taken that leap.
“Today’s 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 Sen. Mark Warner ( D-VA).
Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, also stated similar concerns.
Adam Schiff: "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 weaponize social media platforms to influence the U.S. electorate."— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) July 31, 2018
The inauthentic accounts that were involved in political activity included “Aztlan Warriors”, “Resisters” and “Black Elevation.”
Among these pages, “Resisters” connected with five other authentic pages to create and promote an event “No Unite The Right 2” for 10-12 August. Hundreds of people showed interest in the event.
“We disabled the event earlier today and reached out to the legitimate admins of five other pages,” said Gleicher.
People who had marked they were attending the event were also informed of the happenings around the legitimacy of the page.
Thirty such events had been organized by “bad actors” since May 2017. There is no information if people participated in those events.
Similar political activity, like promotion of African-American activism, was witnessed in the Russian-backed attacks during the 2016 presidential elections.
Discussing the inauthentic accounts’ removal, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post, “today we removed 32 pages and accounts that were engaged in a coordinated inauthentic campaign, including to organize events like a protest against the "Unite the Right" event in a couple of weeks.”
“Security isn't a problem you ever completely solve. We face sophisticated and well-funded adversaries, including nation states, that are always evolving and trying new attacks. But we're learning and improving quickly too, and we're investing heavily to keep people safe,” he added.
Thumbnail/ Banner Credits: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic