Social media platform Facebook has reportedly identified a number of countries utilizing the platform to run influencing campaigns aimed at misleading Facebook users worldwide about a number of issues.
A new report from the New York Times has revealed that multiple countries have allegedly been employing influence campaigns across Facebook to mislead users on a number of topics. The activity originated from Iran and Russia according to Facebook, while many previous influence campaigns attempted to target American users, the most recently discovered campaigns focused on users in Latin America, Britain and the Middle East.
Some of the influencing campaigns focused on American users but were not aimed at disrupting midterm elections in America, according to cybersecurity firm FireEye. According to the firm, operations “extend well beyond U.S. audiences and U.S. politics.”
According to Facebook, the aim of these influencing campaigns was to alter users’ thinking in relation to certain political issues and generally make users more partisan or leaning towards a pro-government stance on various political issues. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg commented on the issue saying: “We believe these pages, groups and accounts were part of two sets of campaigns. One from Iran, with ties to state-owned media. The other came from a set of people the U.S. government and others have linked to Russia.”
One of the groups involved in the disinformation campaign reportedly focused on “fighting racism” in the United States and had amassed a following of approximately 140,000 Facebook users. Another page set up dozens of events all of which aimed to stir up opposition towards left-wing activists, essentially attempting to turn Americans on either side of the political aisle against each other.
The Director of research at New Knowledge, a group which studies disinformation campaigns, commented on Iran’s involvement in the latest batch of influence campaigns, saying that the country’s involvement “reinforces that this is an ongoing information war, that our social ecosystem is vulnerable to manipulation by a variety of adversaries.” Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) added, “There’s no way the problem of social media manipulation is limited to a single troll farm in St. Petersburg, and that fact is now beyond a doubt.” He added, “Iranians are now following the Kremlin’s playbook from 2016.”
Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), commented on the situation, stating that he planned to ask Facebook executives more about these issues during the September technology hearings in Washington set to be attended by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. “Addressing this threat requires technology companies, law enforcement, Congress, and the intelligence community working together,” Burr said.
Following Facebook’s announcement, Twitter also revealed that it deleted 284 accounts believed to be linked to disinformation campaigns:
Working with our industry peers today, we have suspended 284 accounts from Twitter for engaging in coordinated manipulation. Based on our existing analysis, it appears many of these accounts originated from Iran.
— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) August 22, 2018
Facebook began investigating the issue after a tip from FireEye pointed them towards a group of Facebook pages called “Liberty Front Press” which Facebook then linked to Iranian state media after looking into their website registration information and IP addresses. Some of the pages were initially created in 2013 and focused on issues in the Middle East, Latin America, Britain, and the United States. Other pages, published in a number of languages such as English, Arabic, and Farsi, focused on pro-Iranian themes. These pages attacked Israel, promoted Palestinian causes, and contained anti-Trump language which references the Iranian nuclear weapons deal.
Other accounts were created in 2016 and broke a number of Facebook’s rules by spreading malware and attempting to gain access to other users accounts. These reportedly originated in Russia and focused on activity in Ukraine and Syria but do not appear to target the United States. Some Syrian accounts promoted pro-Russian news and supported the agenda of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Facebook stated in a blog post: “For example, they are associated with Inside Syria Media Center, which the Atlantic Council and other organizations have identified for covertly spreading pro-Russian and pro-Assad content.”
Facebook is reportedly working to crack down on the issue of misinformation on their platform, Mark Zuckerberg said during a media conference call: “Authenticity matters and people need to be able to trust the connections they make on Facebook.”