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Facebook Says Russian Trolls Who Interfered in 2016 U.S. Election Are at It Again and Tricked Journalists Into Writing on Their Behalf

Facebook Russia IRA hackers misinformation
AP

Facebook said it banned a “small network” of accounts affiliated with the same Kremlin-backed Russian hacking group that spread disinformation during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

On Tuesday, Facebook said that last month it removed 13 Facebook accounts and two Pages “linked to individuals associated with past activity by the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA).” The activity focused primarily on the U.S., U.K., Algeria and Egypt, along with other English-speaking countries and countries in the Middle East and North Africa, according to the company.

Facebook said the IRA-linked campaign it removed in August “was largely unsuccessful on Facebook, but it tricked unwitting freelance journalists into writing stories on its behalf.” The company added that it is notifying individuals who were contacted by the disinformation network.

The accounts Facebook said were affiliated with the Russian IRA had promoted links to fake news stories on a website called “Peace Data,” styled as a left-wing news outlet, which Facebook alleged was created by the trolling network to appear as if it were a legitimate news organization. Facebook provided examples of fake stories on that site, which had headlines including “Bugaloo Movement: USA Far Right Is Growing Thanks to Donald Trump” and “UK Government Creates a Myth of a Migrant Crisis to Distract From Its Failures.”

Both the Russia-connected Facebook profiles and the Peace Data site created fake profiles with computer-generated photos, according to social-network analysis firm Graphika, which worked with Facebook on the investigation.

After Facebook’s announcement Tuesday, Peace Data posted a “message to our readers” (featuring an image of a Guy Fawkes mask) denying that it was a “Russian propaganda tool.” (The site’s domain name is registered anonymously through registrar Namecheap Inc.) “Our news site is created by the people and for the people to spread the word about peace and expose greedy corporate powers and warmongers all over the world,” the message reads in part. “We’re convinced that corporate media and their puppet masters want to destroy our journalism and shut us up forever for speaking truth about them.”

The social network said it had launched the investigation into the Russian troll network’s activity based on information about its “off-platform activity from the FBI.”

“Our internal investigation revealed the full scope of this network on Facebook,” the company said.

Facebook disclosed the removal of the latest IRA-affiliated trolling effort as part of its August 2020 Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior Report. Since 2017, the company said, it has removed over 100 networks worldwide for engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”

Three years ago, Facebook said that Russia-linked content reached an estimated 126 million people during the 2016 campaign season and into 2017. In the fall of 2017, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was summoned before before Congress to explain how his company’s platform was used by the Russian-funded trolls to try to influence the 2016 U.S. election.

To date, Facebook said, it has found and removed about a dozen “deceptive campaigns” connected to individuals associated with the Russian IRA. “With each takedown, threat actors lose their infrastructure across many platforms, forcing them to adjust their techniques, and further reducing their ability to reconstitute and gain traction,” Facebook said.

For the 2020 U.S. election, Facebook has claimed it has taken extra measures to ensure “election integrity.” “We’re constantly working to find and stop coordinated campaigns that seek to manipulate public debate across our apps,” the company said Tuesday.