Facebook on Monday said it removed a network of Russian-backed accounts that posed as locals weighing in on political issues in swing states, praising President Trump and attacking former vice president Joe Biden — illustrating that the familiar threat of Russian interference looms over the next U.S. presidential race.
This time, a coordinated group of Russian accounts that appears to show some links to the Internet Research Agency largely took to Facebook’s photo-sharing app, Instagram, to post content this year about U.S. politics and memes targeting Democratic presidential contenders.
The operation demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the schisms within the Democratic Party as it labors to choose a nominee to face Trump in 2020. One Russian account, which portrayed itself as a black voter in Michigan, used the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag to hammer Biden for gaffes about racial issues. Some of the accounts boosted one of his rivals on the left, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
The Russian network was the subject of one of four takedowns Facebook announced Monday; it also disabled three misleading campaigns originating in Iran. Researchers said the efforts demonstrated how those seeking to interfere in U.S. politics continue to exploit radioactive topics, including racial and religious fault lines. And they said it offered fresh evidence that foreign actors are pursuing new platforms that rely on a steady stream of images, making detection more difficult despite Facebook’s heightened investments in election security.
“We are seeing again that the aim of the Russians is not exclusively to favor one candidate over another but to create divisiveness within the electorate overall,” said Paul M. Barrett, deputy director of New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights. “The reason that networks of phony accounts are drawn to Instagram is because disinformation is increasingly visual in nature, and that’s what Instagram specializes in.”
The disclosure from Facebook served as more evidence of what Trump has repeatedly questioned — that Russian actors not only interfered in the 2016 election but are continuing their efforts to interfere in American democracy. The task of safeguarding U.S. elections from interference by Russia and other foreign actors has been a source of tension in the Trump administration, with the president repeatedly calling the allegations of Russian involvement in 2016 a “hoax” and top security officials being forced to tiptoe around the issue.
Multiple U.S. investigations have confirmed the extent of Russia’s attempt to interfere in the 2016 presidential race. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III obtained multiple indictments last year of individuals affiliated with the Internet Research Agency. This month, a bipartisan report produced by Senate investigators concluded again that the Russian effort sought to boost Trump and undermine Clinton in the eyes of social media users.
Speaking to The Washington Post last week, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said the problem posed by disinformation has worsened since 2016, and he attributed that in part to a poor initial response by the U.S. government to the threat. “Unfortunately, the U.S. did not have a particularly strong response to Russia after 2016,” he said, “so it sent the signal to other countries that they could get in on this, too.”
Facebook’s announcements came two days before Zuckerberg is set to appear on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are likely to press him on the company’s work to safeguard U.S. elections from foreign manipulation. Members of Congress have upbraided the tech giant for missing key warning signs of Russian interference before the 2016 election, then failing to acknowledge the Kremlin’s activities immediately after the fact.
Zuckerberg said in an interview last week that Facebook is in a “much better place now” to stop disinformation campaigns, citing the company’s investments in tens of thousands of new staff hires and artificial intelligence that can spot fake accounts and dubious posts in real time. The company further fine-tuned its policies Monday, pledging to more prominently alert users when viral content is determined to be false. Announcing the changes, Zuckerberg stressed he now has “some confidence our systems here are working.”
“Elections have changed significantly since 2016,” he told reporters, “and Facebook has changed, too.”
Researchers said Facebook — in spotting and disclosing the Russian network Monday faster than it had in the past — demonstrated it had improved its digital defenses. Companies such as Facebook are “building muscle memory around understanding malicious actors on their platform,” said Graham Brookie, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
But Brookie said Facebook’s takedown showed that Russia’s tactics would continue to evolve as well. “To steal a phrase, a picture is worth a thousand words, and meme-based content is still extremely effective and much harder to detect,” he said.
The Biden campaign applauded Facebook for disabling the fake accounts but said Trump’s penchant for falsehoods posed just as great a challenge for the company, which has refused to fact-check political advertising placed by the president’s reelection campaign.
“Unfortunately, like the Kremlin, Donald Trump continues to benefit from spreading false information, [and] all the while Facebook profits from amplifying his lies and debunked conspiracy theories on their platform,” TJ Ducklo, a Biden campaign spokesman, said in a statement. “If Facebook is truly committed to protecting the integrity of our elections, they would immediately take down Trump’s ads that attempt to gaslight the American people.”
Facebook described the Russian network as a “well-resourced operation” focused on the United States and reliant on sophisticated steps to conceal the identity and location of those behind the fake accounts. It comprised 50 accounts on Instagram and one on Facebook, all of them created this year.
The network appeared still to be in an audience-building phase when it was removed by Facebook: 246,000 accounts followed one or more of the inauthentic Russian accounts, which had collectively made just fewer than 75,000 posts, according to a report from Graphika, a social media analysis firm that examined the operation for Facebook. Only one account, which addressed environmental themes, had more than 20,000 followers.
Much of the content lacked text, consisting only of memes, and the posts often drew from viral content first posted by American actors, including news organizations and prominent political figures, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
The accounts had not yet developed their own voice, which analysts say is critical to achieving a mass following.
“These accounts were trying really hard to hide,” said Ben Nimmo, Graphika’s director of investigations. “The more you try to blend in, the less you stand out. And the less you stand out, the less you’re going to attract an audience. It looks like these accounts were sacrificing engagement for security. That’s a very defensive strategy.”
Nimmo said Facebook’s action was at least the fourth takedown since 2017 of operations targeting the United States that seemed to bear links to the Internet Research Agency. The apparent connection to the St. Petersburg company and “troll farm,” owned by an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, went beyond overlap with the thematic focus and targets of past Kremlin-backed campaigns. Some of the accounts taken down Monday had posted memes already attributed to previous IRA efforts — but had sought to rebuild them from scratch, rather than simply reposting them, and had made attempts to remove the original IRA watermarks.
A minority of the posts focused explicitly on the 2020 election, according to Graphika’s analysis. Among the accounts posing as backers of political and social causes in the United States, the largest cluster was conservative and in support of Trump. Numerous accounts aimed their fire at Democratic candidates — namely Biden but also Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). Other issues included racial activism, Confederate pride, gun rights, LGBT issues, feminism, Islam and Christianity.
Nearly half of the accounts claimed to be based in swing states, with a specific focus on Florida.
Biden came under attack from accounts that positioned themselves on both sides of the political spectrum. One account reposted a tweet from a right-wing political commentator parroting a Trump rebuke of Biden, while another posted a meme showing a road diverging and a car swerving to choose the path representing “Bernie 2020” over “Joe Biden.” Four years earlier, Russian-backed Facebook accounts similarly promoted Sanders during the Democratic primary against Clinton, according to Senate investigators.