SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook says it foiled political influence campaigns originating out of Iran and Russia that targeted U.S. users ahead of the midterm elections.
The campaigns, which mimicked previous Kremlin-linked efforts to stir political discord around hot-button issues, also targeted users in the U.K., the Middle East and Latin America in a bid to sway world politics.
This marks the first time Iran was implicated in a political influence campaign on Facebook. The social media giant says it has not found a connection between the Iranian and Russian campaigns but the campaigns deployed similar tactics.
“We believe these pages, groups and accounts were part of two sets of campaigns,” Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, said in a conference call with reporters late Tuesday. “First a set of activity from Iran, including some with ties to state-owned media, and second a set of activity that the U.S. government and others have publicly linked to Russian military intelligence services.”
The revelation underscored the difficult task of protecting elections from foreign interference on social media, an effort that began after it was discovered that Russia waged a campaign to influence voters during the U.S. presidential election in 2016. After heavy criticism from lawmakers for failing to detect and purge election meddling, Facebook has made safeguarding elections around the world one of its top priorities.
Facebook says it started investigating coordinated activity by a network of Facebook pages linked to Iran after being alerted by a cybersecurity firm FireEye. Facebook said it linked the network to Iranian state media using website registration information, as well as IP addresses and Facebook pages which had the same administrators. It removed 652 pages, groups and accounts for “coordinated inauthentic behavior” on Facebook and Instagram.
“Our systems have been able to find a lot of fake accounts that were attempting potentially to do bad things on the system and we feel like each time we get better at identifying this kind of activity upfront and putting barriers in place to those who would try to abuse these systems,” Zuckerberg said.
According to FireEye, the Facebook content promoted Iranian political interests including anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian themes and advocated for U.S. policies favorable to Iran such as the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal but did not appear to be a “dedicated attempt” to influence the midterm elections.
The growing activity on social media worldwide demonstrates how nation states are increasingly experimenting with online campaigns to influence and shape political discourse, FireEye said.
Twitter said late Tuesday that it removed 284 accounts for engaging in “coordinated manipulation.” The accounts in question also appeared to originate from Iran.
A 2018 report from the Oxford Internet Institute found disinformation campaigns on social media in 48 countries, up from 28 in 2017, despite efforts to combat the spread of false information.
Zuckerberg hinted more revelations of nation-state disinformation campaigns may come to light in coming months. “I think it’s safe to say we have a number of investigations going on, and we’ll update you when we know more,” he said.
Facebook told reporters it worked closely with law enforcement in the U.S. and the U.K. on the investigation, and briefed the State Department and the Treasury Department because of U.S sanctions against Iran.
Facebook was tipped off by FireEye in July to an organization called the “Liberty Front Press.” Facebook connected the group to Iranian state media and found it operated 147 pages, accounts and groups on Facebook and 76 on Instagram, reaching more than 200,000 followers. The group purchased more than $6,000 of ads and organized three events. The group also engaged in hacking accounts and spreading malware.
Facebook tied another set of accounts to Russian military intelligence. A third group, which Facebook did not identify but said it believed originated in Iran, shared information on Middle East politics in Arabic and Farsi.
The Facebook accounts and pages typically posed as news or other organizations which shared information in multiple countries without revealing their true identity.
The accounts which attempted to conceal their location were created in 2013. In 2017, they increased their focus on the U.S. and the UK.
Sen. Mark Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the discovery underscores that other foreign governments are “following the Kremlin’s playbook” in targeting Facebook users to disrupt U.S. elections.
“This is further evidence that foreign adversaries are actively using social media to divide Americans and undermine our democratic institutions,” Warner said in a statement. “I’ve been saying for months that there’s no way the problem of social media manipulation is limited to a single troll farm in St. Petersburg, and that fact is now beyond a doubt.”
During and after the U.S. presidential election, Facebook unwittingly hosted hundreds of pages and accounts later connected to the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Kremlin-linked operation also bought thousands of ads targeting Americans with politically divisive messages. Federal prosecutors indicted 13 Russians involved with the Internet Research Agency for their involvement in election meddling.
Last month Facebook detected and removed 32 pages and fake accounts which raised divisive social issues ahead of the midterms. Facebook did not definitively link the campaign to Russia, but said the tactics were similar those of the Internet Research Agency.
Facebook, Twitter and Google are scheduled to testify at a Senate hearing next month on foreign interference on social media.
“Russia is not the only hostile foreign actor developing this capability, and…addressing this threat requires technology companies, law enforcement, Congress, and the intelligence community working together,” Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a statement. “There is still much that needs to be done and I look forward to discussing it further at the committee’s Sept. 5th hearing.”
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