Facebook said Tuesday that it had discovered a sophisticated coordinated disinformation operation on its platform involving 32 false pages and profiles engaging in divisive messaging ahead of the U.S. midterm elections.
The social media company [said] that it couldn’t tie the activity to Russia, which interfered on its platform around the 2016 presidential election. But Facebook said the profiles shared a pattern of behavior with the previous Russian disinformation campaign, which was led by a group with Kremlin ties called the Internet Research Agency.
Facebook briefed congressional aides this week. A congressional aide said that there’s no evidence that political candidates were targeted in the new disinformation effort but that pages and accounts sought to spread politically divisive content around social issues.
We are looking at just some of the malicious material that already may be circulating or will be released before the midterms. It also bears repeating that we know the campaign of Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) was targeted.
Intelligence experts see the Facebook revelations as a big deal. Former FBI official Frank Figliuzzi said that, for starters, it tells us that “Facebook is finally stepping up and doing something. The FBI has been telling them for years that they are being used.” He also reminded us that sowing racial dissension is part of the Russian playbook: “The Russians’ intel services have been exploiting our racial issues since at least as far back as MLK,” referencing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
On that there is plenty of agreement. Alina Polyakova, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution, explained, “Pushing to amplify divisive issues, especially around race in the U.S., has been standard operating procedure for the Kremlin since the Soviet days.” And, of course, fanning racial flames is part of President Trump’s playbook as well, which gives him every reason to look the other way as outside actors stir racial discord.
While Facebook has gotten more proactive, the Russians and other bad actors have also stepped up. “The surprising part is how little these Russian linked groups are spending — which was also the case the IRA [Internet Research Agency] and how much better they’re getting at hiding their tracks,” Polyakova said. “Whereas we are still stuck in 2016, the Russians have clearly moved on and developed new tools to obfuscate their activities.”
Above all, Russia (and others) are making headway in sowing doubt about the media and our broader society. At this point, Figliuzzi says this interference “is all about the Russian goal of sowing chaos and discord. That goal comes first. Helping a particular candidate is secondary.”
And unfortunately, afraid of reinforcing the impression he depended on Russian help to win in 2016, Trump is doing far too little to inform voters and marshal resources to defend our election system. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, used Tuesday’s news to plead for his bill to increase election-security funding by $250 million. “These funds would help states improve election cybersecurity, replace outdated election equipment, and undertake other anti-cyber efforts,” he said in a written statement. “In fiscal year 2018, Congress came together, Republicans and Democrats, House and Senate, and appropriated $380 million for State Election Security Grants.”
It is now a different story because the administration has little interest in pursuing the issue. In his statement, Leahy explained, “Last week, 21 state attorneys general signed a letter pleading Congress to provide more funding to address this crisis, writing: ‘More funding is essential to adequately equip states with the financial resources we need to safeguard our democracy and protect the data of voting members in our states.’ ” Continuing his plea, Leahy said that “securing our elections and safeguarding our democracy is not a partisan issue. I was disappointed when my amendment was rejected on a party-line vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee. I was disappointed when House Republicans blocked Democrats from even being allowed a vote on this important issue on the House Floor.”
At least we know one party is ready to defend the sanctity of our voting systems and rebuff foreign actors’ attempts to stir racial animosity. If they win in November’s midterms, perhaps Democrats will put real election-security legislation on Trump’s desk. He can then make clear whether Russian interests or American interests are his top priority.
Update: Clinton Watts, a former FBI special agent who was among the first to speak publicly about Russian social-media infiltration, tells me, “Facebook has gotten much better at detecting this nefarious influence [but] bad actors, Russia and other nefarious influencers will continue to dance inside whatever the terms of social media usage allow, changing their techniques ” He also warns that “Russia and other nation states won’t stop influencing via social media until they are met with a response; the U.S. has not mounted one and social media companies are really our only defense.”