Chalk one up for lessons learned the hard way. After taking the brunt of social-media criticism over Russian interference in the 2016 election, Facebook turned its attention to smoking out coordinated disinformation campaigns on its platforms. Today, they announced that they had uncovered one network of coordinated activities aimed at sowing divisions in the US ahead of the upcoming midterms.
If so, it’s not much of an effort:
About two weeks ago we identified the first of eight Pages and 17 profiles on Facebook, as well as seven Instagram accounts, that violate our ban on coordinated inauthentic behavior. We removed all of them this morning once we’d completed our initial investigation and shared the information with US law enforcement agencies, Congress, other technology companies, and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, a research organization that helps us identify and analyze abuse on Facebook.
- In total, more than 290,000 accounts followed at least one of these Pages, the earliest of which was created in March 2017. The latest was created in May 2018.
- The most followed Facebook Pages were “Aztlan Warriors,” “Black Elevation,” “Mindful Being,” and “Resisters.” The remaining Pages had between zero and 10 followers, and the Instagram accounts had zero followers.
- There were more than 9,500 organic posts created by these accounts on Facebook, and one piece of content on Instagram.
- They ran about 150 ads for approximately $11,000 on Facebook and Instagram, paid for in US and Canadian dollars. The first ad was created in April 2017, and the last was created in June 2018.
- The Pages created about 30 events since May 2017. About half had fewer than 100 accounts interested in attending. The largest had approximately 4,700 accounts interested in attending, and 1,400 users said that they would attend.
Kudos to Facebook for the effort, but in terms of scope and impact, this doesn’t amount to much. In the first place, no one really has any metrics on how Facebook pages impact voter behavior, or if it has any impact at all. The hysteria whipped up over Facebook pages in the 2016 cycle largely ignored that lacuna in its logic, as well as the fact that the overall impact on Facebook itself was barely notable – and much of it took place after the election rather than before it.
This seems to be the same kind of operation. In 2014’s midterms, more than 83 million voters cast ballots that were counted as valid. The total number of accounts following this network at any of its nodes — not all of whom may have been US voters or even US persons — amount to 0.3% of that electorate. (For that matter, it’s only 0.0145% of Facebook’s population of 2 billion users.) The number of people responding to events amounts to 0.0056% of the electorate. For a malicious operation presumably run by a hostile intelligence service, its impact was ludicrously small, and its investment — just $11,000 with three months to go? — even more so.
That’s not to say Facebook shouldn’t be vigilant against exploits by hostile intel services and other malicious actors. But perhaps we should keep these operations in perspective, too. That seems in short supply at the moment:
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., confirmed that Senate Intelligence Committee staff were briefed this week by Facebook officials. The company also said it had shared its findings with U.S. law enforcement agencies, members of Congress and other tech companies. …
“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,” Warner said in a statement.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., also pointed to Russia as the source of the campaign.
“Today’s announcement from Facebook demonstrates what we’ve long feared: that malicious foreign actors bearing the hallmarks of previously-identified Russian influence campaigns continue to abuse and weaponize social media platforms to influence the U.S. electorate,” Schiff said.
If that’s the case, then we should do what the previous administration refused to do in 2015 and 2016 — fund counter-intelligence efforts to stop those efforts. Facebook has a responsibility to keep from being exploited, but counterintelligence operations is a little outside their purview and skill set. Had Barack Obama listened to Tom Cotton and his own cybersecurity team when it mattered, we might not have to rely on Mark Zuckerberg to play defense.
Mostly, though, we need to keep these threats in perspective. The US electoral system and political infrastructure is much stronger than 32 accounts on Facebook’s various platforms, even if they managed to momentarily interest a pittance of Facebook users.