WASHINGTON — Facebook said that it has removed more than two dozen pages and accounts that were involved in “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” including those that are trying to stoke political divisions, but it has yet to definitively determine whether Russian sources were behind the activity.
In a conference call with reporters, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg said that it was still too early to judge whether the accounts were attempting to influence the midterm elections, although some of them were promoting events tied to polarizing political issues.
One account was for a group, called Resisters, planning to protest a planned Unite the Right march in Washington next week. Called “No Unite the Right 2 — DC,” it was scheduled for Aug. 10-12. Other groups promoted protests against the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE.
“We’re still in the very early stages of our investigation and don’t have all the facts — including who may be behind this.” the company said in a statement. “But we are sharing what we know today given the connection between these bad actors and protests that are planned in Washington next week. We will update this post with more details when we have them, or if the facts we have change.”
The company has yet to determine who was behind the accounts, but its chief security officer, Alex Stamos, told reporters that there was “evidence of connections of these accounts and some of the identified IRA accounts.”
He was referring to the Internet Research Agency, the Russian entity authorities say was at the center of previous efforts to spread disinformation and pose as fake American groups planning protests on divisive social issues in 2016. Stamos said that they don’t have enough evidence yet to definitively attribute the latest activity to the IRA.
The company said that in the case, 32 accounts and pages from Facebook and Instagram were removed. The pages promoted a total of 30 events, but only two are still upcoming.
In some cases, the fake groups connected with legitimate ones in organizing events via Facebook’s pages. That included the No Unite the Right event. Facebook said that it has informed five administrators of legitimate pages about what happened. Facebook said it was in the process of contacting about 2,600 users who expressed interest in the event and 600 who said they would attend.
Unite the Right was the name of the white nationalist event in Charlottesville, Va., last year that led to clashes and one death. White nationalist groups are planning an event in Lafayette Park for Aug. 12 to mark the one-year anniversary.
The company posted examples of the content that was posted by some of the pages.
The most followed pages identified were “Aztlan Warriors,” “Black Elevation,” “Mindful Being” and “Resisters.” The remaining pages had between zero and 10 followers, and the Instagram accounts had no followers. Facebook said that the accounts generated more than 9,500 organic posts, and one piece of content on Instagram. They ran about 150 ads for about $11,000 — the first created in April, 2017, and the last in June.
Facebook said that one of the IRA accounts it disabled in 2017 also shared a Facebook event hosted by the “Resisters” page. The IRA account also was an administrator for the “Resisters” page for seven minutes.
The company came under intense scrutiny nearly a year ago after the disclosure that Russian-linked sources bought ads on the platform and posted fake pages in efforts to sway political opinion. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress in April.
Facebook has stepped up its efforts to root out fake accounts and to spot suspicious activity, but said that malicious actors have become more sophisticated in masking their identities.
“We always know that our adversaries are going to get better and we’re going to have to get better, and we’re going to continue to invest really heavily so that we can find things and share the information as we find it, as we’re doing today,” Sandberg said.
Facebook executives said that they briefed members of Congress this week, as well as law enforcement, on their findings.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, all but concluded that Russia was behind the account. In a statement, he said that it “is further evidence that the Kremlin continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to sow division and spread disinformation, and I am 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.”