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Facebook discovers a conspiracy to amplify the left

We are 97 days away from the midterm elections, there's an active campaign to undermine our democracy
July 31 · Issue #176 · View online
The Interface
We are 97 days away from the midterm elections, there’s an active campaign to undermine our democracy on Facebook, and no one can say for certain who’s behind it. That was the big news to emerge today in a call that Facebook held with reporters, shortly after the New York Times broke the news that the company had detected an “ongoing political influence campaign” that led it to remove 32 pages and fake accounts from the service.
Facebook laid out its major findings in a blog post. On one hand, the number of fake accounts caught by Facebook here is relatively small. On the other, they were followed by 290,000 people. The accounts had been created between March 2017 and May of this year, and included such pages as “Aztlan Warriors,” “Black Elevation,” “Mindful Being,” and “Resisters.”
The pages were quite active, posting 9,500 times before they were shut down. And they ran ads: 150 of them, at a cost of $11,000. (Notably, these accounts stopped posting after Facebook implemented new disclosure requirements for advertisers.)
Most provocatively, the pages seemed to be focused in part on fomenting real-world dissent. Facebook found that the pages had created 30 events since last year, the largest of which had 1,400 people scheduled to attend. According to the Digital Forensic Research Lab, a think tank focused on preventing election interference that has a partnership with Facebook, the fake accounts exclusively targeted the American left.
Facebook said it had been compelled to disclose its findings ahead of protests connected to a “Unite the Right” rally planned for August. Some of the removed pages were planning or supporting protests for the rally, which is a sequel to an event last year that turned deadly when a man linked to neo-Nazis drove a car into a group of anti-racist protesters.
The Facebook pages were divisive — and effective, according to DFRL. “Of note, the events coordinated by — or with help from — inauthentic accounts did have a very real, organic, and engaged online community; however, the intent of the inauthentic activity appeared to be designed to catalyze the most incendiary impulses of political sentiment,” it said in a blog post.
Citing various linguistic quirks, the lab concludes that it is reasonable to conclude that at least some of the fake accounts were Russian in origin. It also concludes that these operations are becoming more difficult for Facebook to detect:
Their behavior differed in significant ways from the original Russian operation. Most left fewer clues to their identities behind, and appear to have taken pains not to post too much authored content. Their impact was, in general, lower, compared with the 300,000 followers amassed by Russian troll account “Black Matters.”
Information operations, like other asymmetric threats, is adaptive. These inauthentic accounts, whoever ran them, appear to have learned the lessons of 2016 and 2017, and to have taken more steps to cover their traces. This was not enough to stop Facebook finding them, but it does reveal the challenge facing open source researchers and everyday users.
As they day went on, another challenge emerged: real Americans complaining their events had been shut down unfairly. It appears that Facebook deleted events even if they had just a tangential connection to one of authentic accounts. “The Unite the Right counter protest is not being organized by Russians,” organizer Dylan Petrohilos tweeted. “We have permits in DC, We have numerous local orgs like BLM, Resist This, and Antifascist groups working on this protest. FB deleted the event because 1 page was sketch.”
In a separate thread, an organizer named Brendan Orsinger elaborated on how the event was removed. Orsinger, who is helping to organize a Unite the Right counter protest, had added the “Resisters” page as a host of the event to help promote it. “The Resisters page was a 20K follower social media megaphone,” he tweeted, “and it helped us reach more folk.” Unfortunately for Orsinger, the page was run by someone who was faking their identity. So when Facebook killed the Resisters page, it also killed the events that page was “hosting.” (Facebook says Resisters created the event and only then invited legitimate pages to co-host.)
You can see how tricky these issues are. You can also see how unlikely it is that we’ll untangle all of them before November 6th. Facebook deserves credit for disclosing the threats publicly, in something close to real time. Even if that disclosure serves to make us more worried than we were before.
And in the meantime, the mysterious maybe-Russian agents behind the current assault have succeeded in amplifying division and doubt, online and off.

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