Facebook says it has discovered "sophisticated" efforts, possibly linked to Russia, to manipulate U.S. politics ahead of November's congressional elections, setting off a fury among politicians in Washington.
The social media giant said late on July 31 that it could not connect the efforts directly to Russia or to the midterm elections, which are less than 100 days away, but legislators briefed by Facebook said the methodology used by the perpetrators pointed to Russian involvement.
The company said it found 32 "fake" accounts on Facebook and Instagram, which it said it removed because they were involved in "coordinated" and "inauthentic" political behavior.
While Facebook would not say who was behind the efforts, it said it found links between the deleted accounts and those created by Russia's Internet Research Agency, which has been charged by U.S. prosecutors with a major effort to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Nearly 300,000 people followed at least one of the deleted accounts, Facebook said, and hundreds of thousands expressed interest in some 30 political events the sites were promoting.
"This is an absolute attack on our democracy," said Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, whose members received a briefing about the findings from Facebook.
"I think with pretty high confidence that...this was Russian-related," he said.
"The goal of these operations is to sow discord, distrust, and division," said Senator Richard Burr, the committee's chairman. "The Russians want a weak America."
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence vowed to protect the upcoming elections from such foreign interference.
"Any attempt to interfere in our elections is an affront to our democracy and it will not be allowed," Pence said at a cybersecurity summit in New York late on July 31. "The United States of America will not tolerate any foreign interference in our elections from any nation state."
But Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer accused the White House of "not doing close to enough" to "shield" U.S. voters from such foreign influence efforts.
The Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab worked with Facebook to find the political influence efforts on its web pages and viewed the "fake" accounts cited by Facebook before they were removed.
It said that the websites sought to "promote divisions and set Americans against one another," and used "language patterns that indicate non-native English and consistent mistranslation, as well as an overwhelming focus on polarizing issues."
The council said the accounts used an approach that was similar to fake accounts set up by Russia's Internet Research Agency, which has been widely described as a "troll factory," and seemed focused on building support for some 30 political events they were promoting, including political protests.
In February, the U.S. Justice Department indicted the Internet Research Agency and 13 Russian nationals for allegedly using a widespread social media campaign to foster divisions among Americans and interfere in the 2016 election.
Facebook said the perpetrators it found this year set up Facebook pages as early as March 2017, and the most followed pages had names such as "Aztlan Warriors," ''Black Elevation," ''Mindful Being," and "Resisters."
The Atlantic Council said the Resisters page, which advocated left-wing feminist causes, raised alarms because it was pushing for confrontation at multiple protests, including against supporters of the right-wing "Unite the Right 2" group, raising the potential for violence.
A counterprotest touted by the Resisters site was planned for next week at a Unite the Right 2 rally in Washington, D.C.
Facebook said it was disclosing the influence effort now in part because of the planned rallies. A previous event last year in Charlottesville, Virginia, led to violent clashes between white supremacists and counterprotesters, and the death of one counterprotester.
The names Facebook said were given to some of the deleted pages paralleled those of 2016 groups allegedly established by Russian agents to manipulate American voters with particular ethnic, cultural, or political identities. That effort targeted people with both liberal and conservative leanings.
This time, though, the pages Facebook found focused "exclusively at engaging and influencing the left end of the American political spectrum," the Atlantic Council researchers said.
Facebook said the pages it deleted ran about 150 ads costing $11,000 on Facebook and Instagram, paid for in U.S. and Canadian dollars. It said the first ad was created in April 2017 and the last was created in June 2018.
Facebook said the perpetrators this year were "more careful to cover their tracks" than those it found trying to influence the 2016 election, in part because of steps it has taken to prevent a recurrence of the 2016 abuses.
For example, it said they used virtual private networks and Internet phone services to mask their locations, and paid third parties to run ads on their behalf.
Since the 2016 election, Facebook has cracked down on fake accounts and tried to slow the spread of fake news and misinformation through outside fact-checkers.
The company has also announced new guidelines around political advertisements, requiring disclosure of who paid for them and keeping a database of political advertisers.
On a conference call, Facebook executives declined to say much more, including whether the pages mentioned specific candidates or politicians running for reelection in Congress.
Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said Facebook's discovery showed that more work is needed to guard against foreign interference in the upcoming elections.
"Foreign bad actors are using the exact same playbook they used in 2016," he said. They are "dividing us along political and ideological lines, to the detriment of our cherished democratic system."
The intelligence panel is planning a hearing in early September with Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey, and an executive from Google.