The coordinated inauthentic activity that Facebook revealed on Tuesday shows that bad actors are determined to influence U.S. politics, sow division and set Americans against each other—regardless of whether they use conservatism or liberalism as conduits.
In its latest investigation, which is ongoing, Facebook said it did not know whether the influence campaign was being coordinated by Russia, but it did confirm that at least one of the now-defunct pages briefly had an administrator linked to a Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency.
The now-removed Facebook pages generated more than 9,500 organic posts and were followed by 290,000 other accounts, according to the tech giant. The most-followed pages were called “Aztlan Warriors,” “Black Elevation,” “Mindful Being,” and “Resisters.”
Perhaps more ominously, the pages seemed to desire real-world dissent and conflict. They managed to create about 30 events since May 2017, with the largest event showing about 4,700 accounts interested in attending.
For instance, the “Resisters” page created a Facebook Event for a protest in Washington, D.C. on August 10 through 12, enlisting the support of real people. The event was called “No Unite the Right 2 – DC,” seemingly billing itself as a counter-protest against the deadly far-right protests in Charlottesville one year ago.
“Of note, the events coordinated by — or with help from — inauthentic accounts did have a very real, organic, and engaged online community; however, the intent of the inauthentic activity appeared to be designed to catalyze the most incendiary impulses of political sentiment,” the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRL), which is analyzing the inauthentic activity and accounts, said in a blog post.
According to the DFRL, it’s reasonable to conclude that some of the fake accounts were Russian in origin. But investigators also acknowledged that it’s becoming harder to ascertain the whereabouts of the malicious activity.
“Their behavior differed in significant ways from the original Russian operation. Most left fewer clues to their identities behind, and appear to have taken pains not to post too much authored content. Their impact was, in general, lower, compared with the 300,000 followers amassed by Russian troll account ‘Black Matters,’” said the DFRL in a statement.
“These inauthentic accounts, whoever ran them, appear to have learned the lessons of 2016 and 2017, and to have taken more steps to cover their traces.”
This isn’t the first time that bogus and ill-intentioned online activity has been linked to real offline events.
U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment early this year revealed that Russia-backed actors coordinated and staged offline events—including one where Americans were hired to build a cage atop a flatbed truck with someone in a Hillary Clinton costume to promote the idea that she should be imprisoned.