Misuse of Facebook by politically motivated groups was a key theme in 2018, and that looks set to continue for the foreseeable future, with The Social Network this week announcing that it's removed more than 500 Facebook Pages and Instagram accounts linked to Russian-originated groups, due to what it calls 'coordinated inauthentic behavior' across both platforms.
As explained by Facebook:
"Today we removed 364 Facebook Pages and accounts for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior as part of a network that originated in Russia and operated in the Baltics, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Central and Eastern European countries.The Page administrators and account owners primarily represented themselves as independent news Pages or general interest Pages on topics like weather, travel, sports, economics, or politicians in Romania, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Russia, and Kyrgyzstan. Despite their misrepresentations of their identities, we found that these Pages and accounts were linked to employees of Sputnik, a news agency based in Moscow, and that some of the Pages frequently posted about topics like anti-NATO sentiment, protest movements, and anti-corruption."
It's worth noting here that this is not the same group believed to be responsible for the majority of similar actions undertaken in the lead-up to the 2016 US Election, which was another Russian backed group, 'The Internet Research Agency', or IRA.
The IRA could potentially be behind a second cluster of Pages that Facebook has also banned - in a separate action, Facebook detected another 107 Facebook Pages, Groups, and accounts, as well as 41 Instagram accounts, which it's banned on the same grounds. Facebook says that this smaller network originated in Russia and operated in Ukraine
"The individuals behind these accounts primarily represented themselves as Ukrainian, and they operated a variety of fake accounts while sharing local Ukrainian news stories on a variety of topics, such as weather, protests, NATO, and health conditions at schools. We identified some technical overlap with Russia-based activity we saw prior to the US midterm elections, including behavior that shared characteristics with previous Internet Research Agency (IRA) activity."
Cumulatively, more than a million accounts followed one or more of the affected Pages, while the Pages also spent around $160,000 on Facebook ads between October 2013 and January 2019. The group also organized 190 events.
Such activity is obviously a major concern, especially considering the mounting evidence that these groups have been able to influence various elections around the world through coordinated Facebook activity. Along the same line, Facebook also recently banned Twinmark Media Enterprises in the Philippines, a group that had over than 43 million followers. In that case, Facebook's action was more motivated by Twinmark selling access to Facebook Pages it had created, but those Pages were still distributing politically motivated material, and amplifying dissent.
And the challenge is only set to get more complex for The Social Network. The problem now is that, given the publicity around how Facebook can significantly influence voter behavior, more bad actors will be looking to use it for the same.
Facebook acknowledges this challenge in its latest update:
"While we are making progress rooting out this abuse, as we’ve said before, it’s an ongoing challenge because the people responsible are determined and well funded. We constantly have to improve to stay ahead. That means building better technology, hiring more people and working more closely with law enforcement, security experts and other companies. Their collaboration was critical to these investigations."
Indeed, given the stakes at play, you can bet that such groups will only get more sophisticated in their actions.
This, more than ever, underlines the need for users to also remain somewhat skeptical of content shared on Facebook, and to question sources and links where possible. If it seems a little off, if it's not from a recognized source, if it's just blatantly inaccurate, report it, and call it out with evidence where you can.
Not everyone will feel comfortable doing so, but the more we can do to stop the spread of misinformation, the more we move towards an informed society, one that's making important decisions based on facts, not on false reports.
Use Facebook's new tools to identify where Pages originate from, and see what ads they're running, promote efforts to fact-check content among your friends and colleagues. As much as we can hope for Facebook to weed out such misuse, we can also help to address the problem.
Because the issue is likely to get a lot worse before it gets better.