Governance & Risk Management

Facebook: Bogus Russia-Linked Accounts Bought Political Ads

Finding Adds to Concern Over the Manipulation of Social Networks
Facebook: Bogus Russia-Linked Accounts Bought Political Ads

Facebook says a review has concluded hundreds of bogus profiles and group pages likely linked to Russia bought $100,000 worth of politically themed and divisive ads aimed at U.S. voters in 2016.

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The finding comes about four months after Facebook, facing allegations that its platform may have been abused, acknowledged in a white paper that malicious actors used the network to amplify the buzz around stolen data or controversial narratives.

Most of the ads did not name either President Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, writes Alex Stamos, Facebook's chief security officer, in a blog. Instead, the ads revolved around "amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum - touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights."

Although Facebook did not give examples of the ads, issue-oriented ads may not violate the Federal Election Campaign Act, which forbids foreign nationals from funding election-related activities.

Suspect Ads

About 3,000 ads were placed by 470 fake profiles or inauthentic "Pages," which are Facebook profiles for groups. Some 2,200 ads were potentially politically related, Stamos writes. The ads, which cost a total of about $100,000 and were placed between June 2015 through May 2017, violated the company's policies.

"We don't allow inauthentic accounts on Facebook, and as a result, we have since shut down the accounts and Pages we identified that were still active," he writes.

Most interesting is the suspected source of the ads. "Our analysis suggests these accounts and Pages were affiliated with one another and likely operated out of Russia," Stamos writes. Facebook searched for ads that even had "weak signals" of a connection to the country, including accounts linked to U.S. IP addresses but that had Russian set as the language.

The blog post came after Facebook officials met privately with staff investigators with the House Intelligence Panel, The Washington Post reported Wednesday.

The panel is one of three groups investigating Russia's alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election, including possible collusion between the country and members of Trump's election campaign.

"We have shared our findings with U.S. authorities investigating these issues, and we will continue to work with them as necessary," Stamos writes.

Campaign to Disrupt Election

Facebook's findings affirm the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies, which issued a 14-page declassified assessment in January. The report contends Russia waged a multipronged campaign to disrupt the election.

That campaign included targeted data leaks. The agencies have confidence that Russia's General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate, also known as the GRU, created the website and the Guccifer 2.0 persona to distribute stolen email and documents (see Debate: Guccifer 2.0's Potential Link to Russia).

"Moscow's influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations - such as cyber activity - with overt efforts by Russian government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries and paid social media users or 'trolls,'" the document says.

Just days after the election that saw Trump notch a surprising win in the Electoral College vote, Facebook's founder and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, dismissed suggestions that his platform had been used to manipulate voters.

"Personally, I think the idea that fake news on Facebook - of which it's a small amount of content - influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea," Zuckerberg said on Nov. 10, according to CNN.

Amid rising concern, Facebook - which is used daily by hundreds of millions if not billions of people - pledged to look into "information operations," or state-funded efforts designed at influencing sentiment. Its white paper concluded: "The reach of known operations during the U.S. election of 2016 was statistically very small compared to overall engagement on political issues."

Troll Farm

Stamos' blog post does not address exactly who or what entity placed the ads. But The Washington Post, citing an anonymous Facebook official, reported that 3,300 of the ads had "digital footprints" of the Internet Research Agency, which U.S. intelligence agencies described in its assessment as a troll farm.

"The likely financier of the so-called Internet Research Agency of professional trolls located in Saint Petersburg is a close Putin ally with ties to Russian intelligence," it says.

About the Author

Jeremy Kirk

Jeremy Kirk

Executive Editor, Security and Technology, ISMG

Kirk was executive editor for security and technology for Information Security Media Group. Reporting from Sydney, Australia, he created "The Ransomware Files" podcast, which tells the harrowing stories of IT pros who have fought back against ransomware.

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