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Features & Columns

Facebook Removes Russian Accounts that Published Critical Stories About Biden and Harris

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Facebook Removes Russian Accounts that Published Critical Stories About Biden and Harris

2020-09-02 13:45:26

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Facebook (Image source: Public domain)

It's 2020 and we are once again dealing with fake Russian Facebook accounts that have a goal to help Donald Trump in an election. The difference between 2016 and 2020 is that now we are being alerted to them and know to avoid them, and Facebook is shutting down the accounts instead of letting them flourish.

U.S. journalists were recruited by Russian operatives this time to write articles that were critical of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his vice presidential pick Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA).

Facebook reports that it discovered the network of 13 fake accounts and two pages early on and that it hadn't had a chance to build up a broad audience yet. The social network touts their actions to show how effective they are in taking down foreign disinformation operations in this election cycle.

The FBI tipped Facebook off to the operation.  It's one of 12 with ties to the Russian Internet Research Agency or people affiliated with it that Facebook has disrupted since 2016. It wasn't on top of the IRA-backed pages four years ago, leading to millions of views and about 14,000 followers.

"They've gotten better at hiding who they are, but their impact has gotten smaller and smaller," said the head of security policy at Facebook, Nathan Gleicher.

Facebook admitted that in a separate move, it also took down a disinformation network that was associated with a Washington-based public relations firm. Facebook said the firm spent millions of dollars targeting Latin American users. The content in this operation was supporting the opposition to Venezuela's and Bolivia's interim governments and was critical of the political party of the Mexican president, according to Facebook.

The operatives in the Russian disinformation network created fictitious personas on the social network to push people to a site called Peace Data, billing itself as a "global news organization." Its goal was "to shed light on the global issues and raise awareness about corruption, environmental crisis, abuse of power, armed conflicts, activism, and human rights."

The far-right "boogaloo" movement was featured in an article that was posted with a headline reading, "USA Far Right is Growing Thanks to President Trump."

The New York-based analysis firm Graphika received the Facebook data regarding these fake accounts in advance and found that while the Russian effort was small, it had the same goal as 2016, to disrupt support for Democratic party candidates by attracting liberal voters in the U.S.

Biden and Harris were among the operation's targets, criticized as immoral and for being tools of conservatives. While some of the posts also criticized Trump, the target audience was mostly Democratic socialists, environmentalists, and Democrats who weren't loyal to the cause.

Racial justice and unrest in the U.S. featured in the content. "The English-language content on Biden and Harris was noteworthy for its hostile tone," noted the Graphika report. "One article by a guest writer accused the pair of 'submission to right-wing populism [...] as much about preserving careers as it is winning votes."

Camille François, the chief innovation officer for Graphika, said, "The operation seemed designed to divide Democratic supporters and to depress support for Biden and Harris."

Russian operatives from the Internet Research Agency pushed disinformation campaigns on Facebook in 2016, as well as Twitter and YouTube. It found extremely large audiences with content that tried to be divisive and pad Trump's campaign. Congress, and the public as well, called out the social networks for not preventing the foreign election interference. Great resources have been invested by the social networks in the years since to prevent it from happening again.

This has led social media to become more skilled at staying on top of the foreign election interference, even as it has spread past Russia and into China and Iran. Yet, there is still much misinformation and abuse of social networks with Americans pushing fake news stories that go viral.

Facebook plans to alert around 200 journalists that had been recruited by the Russian operative. One of them wrote columns for Peace Data and spoke anonymously. An editor had reached out to him in July via direct message on Twitter and offered $200 per article. He'd lost his job during the pandemic.

The journalist wrote articles on QAnon, coronavirus, and the U.S. militarism's role in climate change. He considers himself a socialist and said he hadn't been informed of the disinformation network by Facebook and had no idea the website was run by a Russian operation.

"Hiring people who are fluent in the language and culture avoids the kind of tells that can expose an operation," said Renée DiResta, a technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, a group that had tracked this strategy.

Most of the Peace Data's 500 articles were in English. About 5 percent were directly aimed at the 2020 election and candidates. There were also 200 articles in Arabic. 

Researchers do not believe the Internet Research Agency operated the same way it did in 2016. Instead, there are numerous operations by Russian people and groups, and they seem to be affiliated in some way with the Internet Research Agency.

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