Facebook said Tuesday it had removed more than a dozen fake accounts and pages linked to a shadowy Russian group that worked to sow discord ahead of the 2016 presidential election, the latest sign Russia is once again working to interfere in the American electoral process.
The social media giant said 13 accounts and two pages were removed after Facebook received a tip from the FBI that they were tied to the Internet Research Agency. The group was highly active in 2016 on every major social media platform, targeting voters before and after the presidential election to bolster Donald Trump, but it has been far quieter during this election cycle.
The accounts, meant to look like a progressive news company, were taken down before they were able to amass a large audience, but The New York Times notes it is the first public evidence Russia is trying to re-up its accomplishments from four years ago.
Twitter also said Tuesday it had removed five accounts and would block any content affiliated with the disinformation effort.
“Russian actors are trying harder and harder to hide who they are and being more and more deceptive to conceal their operations,” Facebook’s Head of Cybersecurity Policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, told NPR. “But there was very little attention paid to this operation.”
The Russian operatives were working to direct social media users to a fake news site called Peace Data that looked like a left-wing news site, going so far as to hire American freelance journalists to write for the website. The New York Times notes the group advertised for writers on an online job board.
The social media analytics firm Graphika, which worked with Facebook to release a report on the fake news network, said Peace Data was crafted to target mainly progressive and left-wing groups in the U.S. and the United Kingdom and share “wholly negative” portrayals of key electoral issues.
“The site paid particular attention to racial and political tensions,” Graphika said in a report released Tuesday. “This included substantial coverage of the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd and criticism of both President Donald Trump and his challengers, former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris.”
Graphika said the content appeared to be crafted to divide Democratic voters going into November, “an attempt to build a left-wing audience and steer it away from Biden’s campaign, in the same way that the original IRA tried to depress progressive and minority support for Hillary Clinton in 2016.”
“The operation seemed designed to divide Democratic supporters and to depress support for Biden and Harris,” Camille François, Graphika’s chief innovation officer, told The Washington Post.
Facebook and Twitter have faced ongoing scrutiny over their roles in the public discourse. Both sites have been associated with the spread of wild, but pernicious conspiracy theories and U.S. intelligence agencies said last month they believed Russia was already acting against Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
The New York Times reported the latest Peace Data initiative was more covert than past efforts by Russia to misuse social media, and the fake news site appeared to be in its early stages before it was spotted. The pages were only followed by about 14,000 people.