“Today’s disclosures are further evidence that Russia continues aggressive interference operations and broader influence operations aimed at divisions within countries and among allies,” said Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which tracks disinformation and studied two of the three networks removed by Facebook.
Graphika, another outside research group that studied one of the Russian networks, said one of the campaigns aimed at Americans focused on courting Black voters and criticizing Democratic nominee Joe Biden — in efforts that included Facebook and other online services including Twitter, Medium, Tumblr and WordPress.
One blog called “Black and intelligent” was created by Russian operatives in 2018, and its supporting account on Twitter displayed an image and quote from the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. The blog featured articles copied from numerous news sources, including The Washington Post, with a focus on racial issues.
“Black and intelligent” offered criticisms of Biden and promoted his onetime rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). The overall reach of the effort was small, with followers in the hundreds, but the operatives used a feature on WordPress to collect 327 emails of those who viewed the blog, Graphika reported.
“Once again, we see fake accounts designed to appeal to Black communities in the U.S.," said Camille Francois, chief innovation officer for Graphika. “In the two years where these accounts were active, they largely failed to build an audience. But the tactic isn’t new, and is one we’ve seen the Russian used in a few operations since 2016.”
Overall, the tactics described by Facebook and outside researchers who studied the same networks suggest Russia increasingly is using phony news sites, online personas and think tanks to lend credibility to its disinformation, in some cases involving unwitting freelance writers in the operations. This is a shift from the 2016 election and its immediate aftermath, when Russian operations used fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media platforms to spread messages to mass audiences based on their political or demographic characteristics.
The shift has been driven by the growing need of disinformation operatives to avoid detection and removal by social media companies and U.S. government agencies, said Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy for Facebook. One of the networks was discovered by Facebook after a tip from the FBI, which has been monitoring Russian and other foreign actors online.
“They’ve been forced into using less effective techniques, but they are still trying,” Gleicher said.
The three Russian networks involved nearly 350 accounts, pages and groups on Facebook and its photo-sharing subsidiary Instagram. Overall the topics were wide-ranging and in line with Russian strategic themes, including the Syrian civil war, military conflict in Ukraine, Turkish politics, the coronavirus pandemic and the potential for civil unrest during the U.S. presidential election.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, issued a statement after Facebook’s action: “This is just the latest reminder that the Kremlin is undeterred — and perhaps emboldened — in launching new online influence campaigns. We must continue to publicly expose all elements of Russia’s foreign influence and propaganda machine so we can harden our defenses and improve our collective vigilance as we cast ballots and prepare to tally votes in November.”
At least one of the networks, run by a phony think tank called the Strategic Culture Foundation, helped spread conspiracy theories aimed at English-speaking audiences, including by fueling false rumors that the coronavirus was produced as a bioweapon and that a potential vaccine would include tracking technology. The foundation, whose Facebook page was being followed by nearly 29,000 people, also spread false information that Bill Gates, the tech executive and philanthropist, was leading efforts to create a vaccine with surveillance capabilities.
“It seems that the elite are betting on the development of an ID-tracking vaccine that would bring all races and institutions under one roof, but clearly they will continue living in their own fenced-off neighborhoods in this one-world government,” said a post from the foundation.
The foundation’s website describes it as “a platform for exclusive analysis, research and policy comment on Eurasian and global affairs.” The articles show a frequent focus on relations among the United States, Russia and other nations. One headline this week read, “The Propaganda Campaign Against Russia Is Gathering Momentum.”
The State Department singled out the Strategic Culture Foundation in a report last month, concluding that it was “an online journal registered in Russia that is directed by Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and closely affiliated with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”
The foundation did not respond to a request for comment through its website, which is still operational.
Facebook acted against two networks run by Russian intelligence services, including one by the military’s GRU intelligence agency that hacked and disseminated damaging Democratic Party emails in 2016, the company said. It did not specify the other intelligence agency, but the State Department report linked that network with Russia’s civilian Foreign Intelligence Service.
A second report by the Atlantic Council’s DRFLab detailed how people previously affiliated with the Internet Research Agency, the St. Petersburg-based troll farm that flooded social media with misleading posts that helped bolster support for President Trump during the 2016 election, are acting in stealthier ways this year.
“It’s not clear that the Internet Research Agency still exists at the same scale and scope it did when exposed by independent Russian journalists or at the height of its activity targeting the United States before and after the 2016 elections,” the report says.
Key to the recent Russian effort was a front group called “United World International,” which posted content on Facebook and Instagram in English and Turkish, pushing anti-Western themes.
All of the networks removed by Facebook on Thursday worked to direct users to stand-alone websites run by Russian operatives that operate beyond the control of the social media company.
The content focused on potential U.S. audiences had few followers and little apparent focus on the coming election, Facebook said.