WASHINGTON - Efforts to influence U.S. voters ahead of the 2018 midterm elections in November appear to be well underway, though private companies and government officials are hesitant to say who, exactly, is behind the recently discovered campaigns.
Facebook announced Tuesday it had shut down 32 Facebook and Instagram accounts because they were "involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior."
Specifically, the social media company said it took down eight Facebook pages, 17 Facebook profiles, and seven Instagram accounts, the oldest of which were created in March 2017.
Facebook said the entities behind the accounts ran some 150 ads for about $11,000 on Facebook and Instagram, paid for with U.S. and Canadian currency.
“We’re still in the very early stages of our investigation and don’t have all the facts — including who may be behind this,” Facebook said in a blog post. “It’s clear that whoever set up these accounts went to much greater lengths to obscure their true identities than the Russian-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) has in the past.”
Effort to spark confrontations
At least 290,000 accounts followed the fake pages, most of which appeared to target left-wing American communities in an effort to spark confrontations with the far right, according to an analysis done by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
“They appear to have constituted an attempt by an external actor — possibly, though not certainly, in the Russian-speaking world,” the Digital Forensic Research Lab said in its own post.
It said similarities to activity by Russia’s IRA included “language patterns that indicate non-native English and consistent mistranslation, as well as an overwhelming focus on polarizing issues at the top of any given news cycle with content that remained emotive rather than fact-based.”
Facebook’s announcement came the same day top U.S. officials warned the country is now in “a crisis mode.”
"Our democracy itself is in the crosshairs," Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said at a National Cybersecurity Summit, citing Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections.
“It is unacceptable, and it will not be tolerated," Nielsen said. "The United States possesses a wide range of response options — some of them seen, others unseen — and we will no longer hesitate to use them to hold foreign adversaries accountable.”
Homeland Security officials said they had been in touch with Facebook about the fake accounts and applauded the move to take them down. The White House also praised Facebook's actions.
"We applaud efforts by our private sector partners to combat an array of threats that occur in cyberspace, including malign influence,” NSC spokesman Garrett Marquis told VOA.
Nielsen, who did not comment on the Facebook announcement directly, also said officials were “dramatically ramping up” efforts to protect U.S. election systems with the help of a new Election Task Force.
She also announced the launch of a National Risk Management Center to make it easier for the government to work with private sector companies to counter threats in cyberspace.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who has at times cast doubt on findings by the U.S. intelligence community regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election, chaired a meeting of his National Security Council on election security on Friday, with the White House promising continued support to safeguard the country's election systems.
Vice President Mike Pence, speaking Tuesday at a Homeland Security-sponsored summit, echoed that, saying, "Any attempt to interfere in our elections is an affront to our democracy, and it will not be allowed."
Pence assured the audience that the White House did not doubt Russia's attempts to influence U.S. elections, saying, "Gone are the days when America allows our adversaries to cyberattack us with impunity."
"We've already done more than any administration in American history to preserve the integrity of the ballot box," he added. "The American people demand and deserve the strongest possible defense, and we will give it to them."
Hackers targeted congressional campaigns
Less than two weeks ago, Microsoft said hackers had targeted the campaigns of at least three congressional candidates in the upcoming election.
Tom Burt, Microsoft’s vice president for customer security and trust, refused to attribute the attacks, but said the hackers used tactics similar to those used by Russian operatives to target the Republican and Democratic parties during their presidential nominating conventions in 2016.
Late last week, The Daily Beast reported one of the targets of the attack was Missouri Democratic senator Claire McCaskill, who has been highly critical of Russia and is facing a tough re-election campaign.
Until recently, both U.S. government and private sector officials had said they had not been seeing the same pace of attacks or influence campaigns that they saw in the run-up to the 2016 election.
“I think we’re not seeing that same conduct,” Monika Bickert, head of Facebook’s product policy and counterterrorism, said during an appearance earlier this month at the Aspen Security Forum. “But we are watching for that activity.”
Still, many officials and analysts said it was likely just a matter of time before Russia would seek to strike again.
“I think we have been clear across the entire administration that even though we aren’t seeing this level of activity directed at elections, we continue to see Russian information operations directed at undermining our democracy,” Homeland Security undersecretary Chris Krebs said.
Facebook said it was sharing what it knows because of a connection between the "bad actors" behind the Facebook and Instagram pages and some protests that are planned next week in Washington, D.C.
Facebook also canceled an event posted by one of the accounts — a page called "Resisters" — calling for a counterprotest to a "Unite the Right" event scheduled for August in Washington, D.C.
U.S. lawmakers' reactions
Key U.S. lawmakers applauded Facebook’s actions Tuesday, though they warned more still needs to be done.
“The goal of these operations is to sow discord, distrust and division in an attempt to undermine public faith in our institutions and our political system,” Sen. Richard Burr, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “The Russians want a weak America.”
“Today's announcement from Facebook demonstrates what we've long feared — that malicious foreign actors bearing the hallmarks of previously identified Russian influence campaigns continue to abuse and weaponize social media platforms to influence the U.S. electorate,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.
“It is clear that much more work needs to be done before the midterm elections to harden our defenses, because foreign bad actors are using the exact same playbook they used in 2016,” Schiff added.