Facebook finds ongoing evidence of election interference

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(Bloomberg) -- Facebook Inc. has uncovered an ongoing effort to influence U.S. political opinions on its social networks, showing how attempts to meddle in civic life ahead of midterm elections are becoming more sophisticated even as the company takes steps to thwart them.

Facebook said it notified the U.S. government and deleted dozens of accounts and pages from people using false identities, who were coordinating events and stirring up political unrest. The campaign is similar to the one Russia-linked groups ran around the 2016 presidential elections, though the company doesn’t know who’s behind it this time. One thing is clear, Facebook said: the responsible parties were determined to not get caught.

“Whoever set up these accounts went to much greater lengths to obscure their true identities than the Russian-based Internet Research Agency has in the past,” Facebook said Tuesday in a blog post.

Facebook has promised to protect the U.S. -- and other countries -- from the influence of organizations seeking to interfere in fair elections, after failing to disclose the Russia-backed effort until long after the 2016 race was decided. Lawmakers have put pressure on the company to become something of a private intelligence agency to ferret out fake accounts and false or misleading content. In response, Facebook has been hiring security analysts, coordinating with the governments on thousands of leads, and spending billions on systems to support the effort.

The new disclosure underscores the increasing difficulty of staying ahead of the latest strategies by political operatives trying to take advantage of Facebook’s algorithm, which helps popular and incendiary ideas to go viral. The accounts Facebook discussed on Tuesday already coordinated about 30 real-world events over the past year. The longer it takes Facebook to determine the difference between a person’s real ideas and a fake identity’s influence strategy, the harder it will be to ensure an informed democracy ahead of elections. At stake in this year’s midterms are several contentious races that could flip the U.S. Congress to Democratic control.

"Security is an arms race,” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, said in a briefing with reporters. “We are glad we were able to find this. We always know our adversaries are going to get better and we are going to have to get better."

Facebook said that starting last week, it identified eight pages and 17 profiles on its main social network, and seven accounts on photo-sharing app Instagram, that violated its rules. It shared the findings with U.S. law enforcement, Congress and other technology companies. The Menlo Park, California-based company said it was letting the public know ahead of a real protest the fake accounts had helped coordinate in the nation’s capital for next week.

“At this point in our investigation, we do not have enough technical evidence to state definitively who is behind this,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, said on the call. “These accounts have engaged in some similar activity and in some cases have connected with known IRA accounts.” He said the full extent of this effort may not yet be known. "We’re following up on thousands of leads.”

Law enforcement can help make a determination about the groups’ motive and impact, Facebook executives said. The company said it only sees what happens on its platform, and isn’t able to judge what the campaign was aiming to achieve.

As questions have proliferated about the use of Facebook’s platform to influence political debate and harness private user data, the company and its internet peers have been the subject of numerous Congressional hearings. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg testified for two days before Congress in April after the revelation that the British political consultancy Cambridge Analytica had obtained the data of as many as 87 million Facebook users without their consent.

After Tuesday’s announcement, Democratic Senator Mark Warner, who serves as vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that he was "glad that Facebook is taking some steps to pinpoint and address this activity."

"I also expect Facebook, along with other platform companies, will continue to identify Russian troll activity and to work with Congress on updating our laws to better protect our democracy in the future," said Warner, adding that he had received a briefing on the discoveries.

The U.S. intelligence community has occasionally suggested social-media sites are better positioned to catch evidence of meddling on their platforms, while the companies have pushed back that it’s law enforcement that has the requisite expertise. Still, Facebook has invested in thousands of employees, some with security clearance or law enforcement backgrounds, who can help the company spot unusual behavior from its user base.

Facebook has said that increased spending, including investments it’s made in safety and security, would result in narrower profit margins in the coming years. That’s one reason Facebook’s shares tumbled 19 percent the day after its second-quarter earnings report last week. The company also posted slower-than-expected revenue gains and lackluster user growth. That report came against the backdrop of persistent questions about Facebook’s content and data-protection policies.

Asked about Facebook’s latest disclosures, Senator John Cornyn said he’s been briefed on efforts to impact U.S. politics via social media and noted the Intelligence Committee has a hearing Wednesday to listen to experts on the subject.

"It demonstrates again a huge vulnerability that we have where these people who claim to be somebody else can foment such conflict and dissension within our society," said Cornyn, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican. "It’s like pouring gasoline on a fire."

"Our adversaries are taking advantage of that," he said. "But it strikes me that it’s not just foreign states, it also can be political opponents."

--With assistance from Ben Brody, Steven T. Dennis and Naomi Nix

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