Facebook officials say they have identified a co-ordinated political campaign to manipulate voters ahead of U.S. elections this fall, including fake accounts that helped organize a protest in Washington, and suspicious American political issue ads paid for in Canadian dollars.

The social-media giant said it had removed 32 pages and profiles that appeared to be orchestrating efforts to inflame the political debate around divisive social issues, such as immigration, ahead of the November midterm vote.

The company said it had briefed U.S. law-enforcement agencies, the intelligence community, other tech firms and members of Congress on its findings.

Facebook has been grappling with continuing public backlash for being slow to recognize Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, along with widespread concerns over its past data-sharing practices. The company’s stock has plunged more than 20 per cent since last week, after it reported slower user growth and rising costs for security and safety programs to crack down on abuse of its platform.

The social-media firm is rushing to prevent a repeat of the 2016 Russian interference in the approaching midterm elections. It has doubled its security and content-moderation teams, expanded its use of artificial intelligence to detect suspicious posts before they are published and forced advertisers to publicly disclose more information.

But executives warned that they are dealing with increasingly sophisticated political operatives, who are finding new ways to abuse Facebook’s platforms. “We’ve made it harder for inauthentic actors to operate on Facebook,” said Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg. “Yet we face determined, well-funded adversaries who won’t give up and who are constantly changing tactics.”

Company officials refused to link the latest suspicious accounts and pages to Russian actors, but said the most recent activity involved some of the same tactics employed by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian-backed troll farm named in a federal indictment into political interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. One account of a known IRA operative was briefly an administrator of one of the latest suspicious pages flagged by Facebook, company officials said

“At this point in our investigation, we do not have enough technical evidence to state definitively who is behind this,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy.

However, Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, issued a statement tying the latest Facebook activity directly to Russia. “The disclosure is further evidence that the Kremlin continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to sow division and spread disinformation,” he said.

In its latest discovery of suspected political interference, Facebook said it had removed 17 profiles and eight pages, along with seven accounts on Instagram, the Facebook-owned photo-sharing app. The earliest was created in March of last year, while the most recent was created this May.

The most popular pages had names such as “Aztlan Warriors,” “Mindful Being” and “Black Elevation,” with one of the pages having more than 290,000 followers. In total, the pages created 9,500 posts on Facebook before they were first detected two weeks ago and later removed, the company said.

Executives refused to say whether the suspicious accounts and pages primarily targeted Democratic or Republican voters, but several of the examples Facebook posted on its corporate website showed anti-Trump ads or ones aimed at progressive causes.

One fake page called “Resisters” was involved in co-ordinating a protest in Washington on Aug. 10-12. The “No Unite the Right 2 – DC” event was meant to be a counter-protest to a rally planned by right-wing groups as a follow-up to last year’s deadly “Unite the Right” protests in Charlottesville, Va.

Fake accounts contacted administrators of five other legitimate Facebook groups to help plan the counterprotest, including offering support for transportation and logistics, and posting ads to hire an event co-ordinator. Facebook said it had disabled the event and was in the process of contacting nearly 2,600 people who had said they were interested in attending.

The pages had organized 30 other events over the same time period. Roughly 4,700 people had registered interest in attending in total, though company officials couldn’t say whether any of the events had actually taken place.

Other accounts and pages targeted sensitive issues such as immigration, including at least one page involved in organizing an “Abolish ICE.” The movement to get rid of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency tasked with deporting undocumented immigrants, has become a rallying cry for some Democrats.

The organizers behind the accounts went to great lengths to conceal their identities including using virtual private networks – software that masks the geographic location of computers – and Internet-based phone numbers, company officials said.

They also used third parties to publish paid advertisements on Facebook, in violation of the social-media firm’s policies banning foreign entities from buying U.S. political ads.

The accounts spent $11,000 to run 150 ads on both Facebook and Instagram between April 2017 and June of this year, paid for in both U.S. and Canadian dollars. Facebook previously said roughly 470 fake accounts had spent US$100,000 on more than 3,500 ads surrounding the 2016 election.

Facebook officials declined to discuss specifics on what third party groups had published the most recent ads.

The Globe and Mail, July 31, 2018