With an eye on election interference, Facebook scrubs networks of phony Russian accounts

It’s the latest in a series of scrubs Facebook has made for foreign influence operations heading into the U.S. presidential election.
Facebook social media
(Wikimedia Commons)

Facebook on Thursday removed over 200 phony accounts and dozens of pages that originated in Russia and pumped out information on sensitive geopolitical issues targeting people from Turkey to the U.S.

Facebook said it traced the fraudulent activity to either people connected with Russian military intelligence services or the Internet Research Agency, a notorious Russia-based troll farm. It’s the latest in a series of actions that Facebook has taken against suspected foreign influence operations heading into the U.S. presidential election.

“While we have not seen the networks we removed today…directly target the US 2020 election, they are linked to actors associated with election interference in the US in the past, including those involved in ‘DC leaks’ in 2016,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy, said in a blog post.

As with another suspected Russia-based influence operation that Facebook uncovered this month, the latest activity saw operatives pose as journalists or writers in an effort to propagate their messaging. The larger set of activity — comprising 214 Facebook users and 35 pages —was focused on things like the Syrian civil war and domestic Turkish politics, but also touched on hot-button topics such as the unrest in Belarus.


The second set of dismantled activity, which Facebook investigated after a tip from the FBI, was focused on Turkey and Europe, and to a lesser extent the U.S. That small cluster of activity — involving just five accounts that Facebook removed — was the handiwork of people whom Facebook has previously tied to the IRA. They spent $4,800 on Facebook ads in euros and Russian rubles.

A third network of 23 accounts also originated in Russia, Facebook said, and focused on protests in Belarus, Russia’s relations with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and U.S. politics. People associated with Russian intelligence services were behind those fake accounts, the social media giant said.

The announcement comes as U.S. officials have tried to steel the American public for an unpredictable election marked by disinformation from both foreign and domestics sources.

“I would encourage people to be critical thinkers, and to get their news from a variety of sources and make up their own mind and be a skeptical, discerning electorate — which is what I think is the best defense against malign foreign influence,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told a Senate committee on Thursday.

Some experts have said that domestic misinformation could be a bigger challenge to combat as President Donald Trump continues to make baseless claims about voter fraud. Facebook has taken down networks of U.S.-based fake accounts on multiple occasions.

Sean Lyngaas

Written by Sean Lyngaas

Sean Lyngaas is CyberScoop’s Senior Reporter covering the Department of Homeland Security and Congress. He was previously a freelance journalist in West Africa, where he covered everything from a presidential election in Ghana to military mutinies in Ivory Coast for The New York Times. Lyngaas’ reporting also has appeared in The Washington Post, The Economist and the BBC, among other outlets. His investigation of cybersecurity issues in the nuclear sector, backed by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, won plaudits from industrial security experts. He was previously a reporter with Federal Computer Week and, before that, with Smart Grid Today. Sean earned a B.A. in public policy from Duke University and an M.A. in International Relations from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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