“They’ve gotten better at hiding who they are, but their impact has gotten smaller and smaller,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy, said of the foreign operations.
Facebook said Tuesday it separately took down a disinformation network associated with a Washington-based public relations firm that Facebook said had spent millions of dollars to target users in Latin America. Content included posts supporting the political opposition in Venezuela and Bolivia’s interim government, as well as criticism of the Mexican president’s political party, Facebook said.
In the case of the Russian disinformation network, Facebook said the operatives created fictitious personas on Facebook to direct people to a new site called Peace Data, which billed itself as a “global news organization” whose goal was “to shed light on the global issues and raise awareness about corruption, environmental crisis, abuse of power, armed conflicts, activism, and human rights.”
One article posted on Facebook about the far-right “boogaloo” movement featured a headline that read, “USA Far Right is Growing Thanks to President Trump,” according to a report provided by Facebook.
A report Tuesday by Graphika, a network analysis firm based in New York that received the Facebook data in advance, found that the Russian effort was small but echoed past efforts to undermine support for Democratic Party candidates by appealing to left-wing U.S. voters. Among the targets were Biden and Harris (D-Calif.), who were criticized by the phony network as immoral tools of political conservatives. Some posts also criticized Trump, but the target audience in the United States was democratic socialists, environmentalists and disaffected Democrats, the report found.
Some of the fake content focused on racial justice and unrest in the United States since the killing of George Floyd in May. “The English-language content on Biden and Harris was noteworthy for its hostile tone,” according to the Graphika report. “One article by a guest writer accused the pair of ‘submission to right-wing populism […] as much about preserving careers as it is winning votes.’”
“The operation seemed designed to divide Democratic supporters and to depress support for Biden and Harris,” said Camille François, chief innovation officer for Graphika.
In 2016, Russian operatives from the Internet Research Agency ran widespread disinformation campaigns on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, garnering huge audiences with content that attempted to sow division among U.S. voters and bolster Trump’s campaign for president. The technology platforms faced significant blowback from Congress and the public for failing to prevent foreign interference and since then have invested resources in countering such activity.
As the 2020 election draws near, experts say technology companies have become more skillful at getting ahead of foreign interference, even as the threat has broadened beyond Russia to countries such as China and Iran. But social media platforms are still rife with misinformation and abuse, often emerging from domestic actors that have caused false stories about current events to go viral.
Facebook said it plans to inform 200 or so journalists who were recruited by the Russian operatives.
One of the journalists who wrote columns for Peace Data, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his career, said that an editor reached out to him through a direct message on Twitter in July offering $200 per article.
He said he pursued the opportunity in part because he had lost his job in the pandemic. He wrote articles about the conspiracy-theory movement QAnon, the coronavirus, and U.S. militarism’s role in climate change. The journalist, who said he considers himself a socialist, said he had not been informed by Facebook and had no idea that the website, while appearing disorganized, was run by a Russian group.
The co-option of unwitting locals is part of a growing strategy used by foreign disinformation operatives.
“Hiring people who are fluent in the language and culture avoids the kind of tells that can expose an operation,” said Renée DiResta, technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, which has tracked the strategy.
Most of the content for Peace Data was in English, with 500 articles overall. About 5 percent were explicitly aimed at the U.S. election and candidates. There were also 200 articles in Arabic, Graphika found.
Disinformation researchers do not consider the Internet Research Agency, the St. Petersburg-based operation indicted by U.S. officials for interfering in the 2016 presidential election, as still functioning in the same way it did years ago. Researchers instead see numerous operations by Russian people and groups that appear to have some previous affiliation with the IRA, using an updated playbook that typically involves more targeted — but less viral — efforts to affect political debates and elections.
Avoiding detection is a key goal of these operations, experts say. Facebook and Twitter, for example, took action against a Russian-linked operation in March that worked with a nonprofit group in Ghana and sought to influence Black voters in the United States with targeted messages. The IRA in 2016, by contrast, pushed viral messaging on social media platforms designed to reach large numbers of voters based on political interests and affiliations. The Russian operations in 2016 paid for ads aimed at U.S. voters using rubles, the Russian currency, signaling a lack of concern regarding detection.
The public relations firm involved in the other takedown was CLS Strategies, Facebook said. Headquartered a few blocks from the White House, CLS previously advised foreign clients that used Facebook, according to news reports and its own website.
A CLS Strategies partner, Juan Cortiñas, said in a statement, “CLS has a long tradition of doing international work, including on social media, to promote free and open elections and to oppose oppressive regimes, and we take seriously our commitment to adhering to the fast-evolving policies of Facebook and other social media platforms.”
Cortiñas declined to address additional questions about the nature of the firm’s involvement.
Facebook’s Gleicher said the effort linked to CLS involved 55 Facebook accounts, 42 Facebook pages and 36 accounts on the company’s photo-sharing subsidiary Instagram, targeting audiences in Venezuela, Mexico and Bolivia. Together these online information operations reached more than 550,000 users on the two social media sites and also involved $3.6 million in advertising.