Facebook has spotted a series of pages and accounts suspected of working to politically manipulate users, the social media giant announced Tuesday. The social network is ramping up its efforts to stop election meddling heading into the 2018 U.S. midterms.
The company said it spotted 32 “inauthentic accounts” on both Facebook and Instagram as part of its investigation. Facebook hasn’t tied the accounts to the Internet Research Agency — the Kremlin-linked troll factory that leveraged the platform to spread misinformation before the 2016 presidential election — but said their actions are “consistent” with the IRA. Facebook said it doesn’t know who is behind the coordinated accounts.
“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,” said Facebook in a blog post. “We believe this could be partly due to changes we’ve made over the last year to make this kind of abuse much harder.”
One of the bogus pages, dubbed “Resisters,” was helping lead a protest against an upcoming “Unite the Right” rally in Washington, D.C. The page had created an event that attracted 2,600 “interested” users, including 600 who said they would be attending to protest the white supremacist rally between August 10 and August 12. Facebook said it would be notifying those users today that the “Resisters” page is an inauthentic account.
At least one of the accounts worked to coordinate a protest against the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, on a call with reporters on Tuesday.
Altogether, more than 290,000 users followed the nefarious accounts, according to Nathanial Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity. The accounts ran 150 advertisements, for about $11,000, in the last 15 months.
“These bad actors have been more careful to cover their tracks, in part due to the actions we’ve taken to prevent abuse over the past year,” said Gleicher. “For example they used VPNs and internet phone services, and paid third parties to run ads on their behalf.”
Gleicher added that Facebook has been working with law enforcement and Congress on its investigation.
Facebook has proclaimed in recent months that its increased focus on blocking political meddling has paid off — pointing to 2017 elections in Germany and France as examples of its improved defense efforts. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said last fall he is “dead serious” about stopping election manipulation moving forward. The social network has hired thousands of ad moderators in the meantime, and added more layers of verification for those looking to run political ads.
Tuesday’s revelation follows a difficult week for Facebook. The company’s stock has been hit hard since reporting its Q2 earnings last Thursday, with the company missing on revenue projections for the first time in three years. The miss — despite the company posting its best quarterly sales in its history — have tanked Facebook shares 21 percent, as Wall Street grows concerned over slowing user and revenue growth. The company’s work to weed out malicious accounts has become a top priority, with Zuckerberg saying “protecting our community is more important than maximizing profits.”