Facebook Uncovers Another Russian-Style Disinformation Campaign

Two weeks ago, Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, warned that almost two decades after the September 11, 2001 attacks, “warning lights are blinking red again” for a devastating cyber assault on critical U.S. infrastructure.

Six months ago, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) head of cybersecurity, Jeanette Manfra, confirmed Russia officially penetrated several states’ voter rolls during the 2016 election.

Last October, news broke about evidence confirming Russian buyers used Facebook advertising as propaganda leading up to the election, prompting the House Intelligence Committee in November to release a sample of Facebook ads the Russian government-affiliated Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg troll farm, purchased about issues like immigration, religion, and race, for and against presidential contenders Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump.

In light of these revelations, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced congressional lawmakers in April to respond to questions about his social media company’s role in influencing the 2016 presidential election.

Today we learn Facebook has uncovered another coordinated disinformation campaign involving 32 faux users’ pages and profiles, specifically eight pages, 17 profiles, and seven Instagram accounts that were created between March 2017 and May 2018, again attempting to sow discord between users, just in time for the 2018 mid-term elections.

Although Facebook officials state they are unable to tie the malicious activity to Russia, profiles share a pattern with the 2016 activity associated with the Kremlin-linked troll farm.

Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, commented:

“These bad actors have been more careful to cover their tracks, in part due to the actions we’ve taken to prevent abuse over the past year.”
He added:
“We know that Russians and other bad actors are going to continue to try to abuse our platform — before the midterms, probably during the midterms, after the midterms, and around other events and elections. We are continually looking for that type of activity, and as and when we find things, which we think is inevitable, we’ll notify law enforcement, and where we can, the public.”

Facebook briefed congressional aides this week, and stated in a 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. We believe this could be partly due to changes we’ve made over the last year to make this kind of abuse much harder. But security is not something that’s ever done. We face determined, well-funded adversaries who will never give up and are constantly changing tactics. It’s an arms race and we need to constantly improve too.”

One suspicious post advertised a far-right rally counter-march scheduled for next week in Washington. Facebook reportedly discovered the post two weeks ago, removed it, and notified 2,600 users who expressed interest in attending the event.

Another post pertained to last year’s “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. that left paralegal and civil rights activist Heather Heyer and two other counter-protesters dead.

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said:

“Today’s disclosure 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.”

So what do we do?

What is our government doing to prevent another 2016-style infiltration?

In March, the United States imposed sanctions on 19 Russian individuals and five groups that include Moscow’s intelligence services, for cyber attacks and interfering with the 2016 presidential election.

The sanctions target the Russian nationals special council Robert Mueller charged on February 16 for tampering with our elections, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), and six individuals working for GRU.

Earlier this month, Mueller indicted 12 more GRU operatives.

However, in April, the White House eliminated from the National Security Council an integral position charged with developing a policy to defend the United States against cyber warfare and cyber election hacking.

Two weeks ago, House Republicans refused to fund election security in a new spending bill.

Former FBI Director James Comey warned Congress during his highly televised Senate Intelligence Committee hearing last June that Moscow is not through meddling with the American electorate:

“They’re coming after America. They will be back.”

Former Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, confirmed the United States is still vulnerable to similar meddling.

Tillerson told Fox News in an interview from, Bogota, Columbia:

“Well, I don’t know that I would say we’re better prepared (than in 2016) because the Russians will adapt as well.  The point is if it’s their intention to interfere, they’re going to find ways to do that. And we can take steps we can take, but this is something that, once they decide they’re going to do it, it’s very difficult to preempt it.”

Asked whether he thought Russia would interfere again, Tillerson said:

“I don’t know. I hope they don’t.”

Despite all the intelligence evidence, Trump replied “no” when a reporter inquired whether Russia was “still targeting the U.S.”

Hours later, White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, claimed “we believe the threat still exists,” and that Trump was responding to a different question.

Image credit: CNN Money

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