Facebook announced today that it has found evidence of another coordinated election interference campaign on its site -- a likely effort to influence the 2018 U.S. Midterms.
This is the second instance of a high-profile effort to weaponize Facebook with the goal of influencing a U.S. election. Last year, it was discovered that foreign actors -- largely based in Russia -- coordinated a similar campaign with the creation of numerous fake accounts and the spread of divisive information, much of it false.
This time, things are a bit different. Facebook caught a smaller number of accounts, but did so much earlier on -- and the company is less confident about saying, for sure, who could be behind it.
Here's what we know.
Facebook Uncovered Another Election Interference Campaign
What Facebook Found
In its official statement, Facebook said it removed 32 Pages and accounts -- eight Facebook Pages, 17 Facebook profiles, and seven Instagram accounts -- for what it describes as "inauthentic behavior" that intends to mislead network users.
Altogether, Facebook said, more than 290,000 accounts followed one or more of the Pages removed.
Of the Pages, those with the highest following included “Aztlan Warriors,” “Black Elevation,” “Mindful Being,” and “Resisters.” The last one, Resisters, worked with five other authentic Pages to organize an event called "No Unite the Right 2 – DC,” which it created to protest a “Unite the Right” scheduled for this August in Washington, D.C.
The authentic Pages "unwittingly" played a vital role in organizing this event, Facebook says, going to far as providing attendees with help finding transportation and locations. More than 2,500 users said they were interested in attending, and over 600 RSVP'd "yes."
Facebook says it plans to inform these users of what it has discovered this afternoon.
The events created by these Pages wasn't limited to "No Unite The Right 2- DC." Together, they created roughly 30 events since May 2017, with the largest having 1,400 users RSVPing "yes."
"[On] the previous events, we can assess what happened on Facebook, we can’t assess what happened in the real world — in the external world,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy.— Kurt Wagner (@KurtWagner8) July 31, 2018
That's not great.
Combined, these accounts created 9,500 organic posts, running roughly 150 ads across Facebook and Instagram that cost a total of $11,000. The most recent ad was created in June 2018 (and the first, the company says, in April 2017 -- the same month Facebook published a white paper on the potential misuse of its platform.
As for the content of these ads, Facebook has released a small sample. There are some similarities between what was shared today and the Russian-bought content that was released by the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) in May 2018.
Similar to the Russian-bought content revealed last spring, the ads released today pertain to some of the most divisive issues in the U.S., many of which are center stage in the months leading up to a major election -- things like race, gender rights, and religion. The U.S. 2018 Midterm Elections are taking place this November.
Who Was Behind It
Here's where things start to get tricky.
When Facebook discovered and described the weaponization of its platform to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the evidence of Russian interference -- specifically, the IRA -- was clear, with the company able to trace that activity back to these parties.
This time, however, Facebook says it cannot say with certainty who coordinated this campaign. And while there are some similarities with what was discovered this time around and the previous Russian interference, "we still don’t have firm evidence to say with certainty who’s behind this effort."
However, certain lawmakers disagree. Senator Mark Warren -- whose office yesterday published a paper outlining what regulation of Big Tech might look like -- showed no hesitation in identifying Facebook's findings as "evidence" of Russian interference.
More evidence that the Kremlin continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to sow division and spread disinformation. https://t.co/OMidt7zfiv— Mark Warner (@MarkWarner) July 31, 2018
But Facebook's investigation is ongoing, it says, and involves working with law enforcement and Congress. "The lack of firm attribution in this case or others," wrote Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos, "does not suggest a lack of action."
Facebook has made no secret of its efforts to curb the spread of misinformation and prevent election interference on its site since the 2016 election meddling was first discovered -- which was followed by the discovery that personal user data was improperly obtained and abused by data mining and voter profiling firm, Cambridge Analytica.
Since then, Facebook has made a suite of changes to the way it publishes and displays ads -- from a major shift in its News Feed algorithm, to showing more content from friends and family, to special labels and options to learn more about issue-based ads.
The announcement follows a string of bad days for Facebook. Last week, its Q2 earnings call proved to be somewhat disastrous, as a miss on estimates and reported decrease in active users sent the company's stock price into a tailspin.
An analyst asked for clarification on this, and what's causing the deceleration. CFO David Wehner says that "a combination of factors" is driving it, like giving users more choices around privacy, as well as investments in new products and initiatives that can slow revenue growth https://t.co/JS4FC00P35— Amanda Zantal-Wiener (@Amanda_ZW) July 25, 2018
Facebook began to financially rebound -- and as of publishing this story, its stock price does not appear to have been significantly impacted by today's revelations.
The same day as the earnings call, it was revealed that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg -- along with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and a yet-to-be-disclosed representative from Google -- will testify before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Tomorrow, that will be preceded by an open hearing held by the same committee, where lawmakers will hear testimony from third-party experts on foreign influence in social media.
As Facebook has indicated, the investigation is ongoing and more information is expected to be revealed as it proceeds.