Facebook says it has found a coordinated effort to influence US politics ahead of the 2018 midterm elections using Facebook profiles and advertisements.
Facebook said it didn't yet know who was behind the effort.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill were told this week, The New York Times reported Tuesday.
Facebook says it has detected a coordinated effort to use its social network to influence American politics ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
On Tuesday, the social network announced it had banned 32 pages and accounts that were engaged in "coordinated inauthentic behavior" and organized dozens of real-world events — and it said there were similarities to previous Russian disinformation campaigns.
"We're still in the very early stages of our investigation and don't have all the facts — including who may be behind this," Facebook said in a blog post. "But we are sharing what we know today given the connection between these bad actors and protests that are planned in Washington next week."
Russia was found to have used Facebook to meddle in the 2016 US presidential election — notably through a troll farm called the Internet Research Agency — but Facebook is not explicitly linking the new efforts to Russia.
"We can't say for sure if this is the IRA with improved capabilities or a different group based on what we know today," Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos said on a call with reporters on Tuesday.
Thirty events created by the inauthentic pages had already taken place, Facebook representatives said on the call, adding that the pages were taken down ahead of one event scheduled for August 10 in Washington, DC. The event, called "No Unite The Right 2 — DC," a counterprotest of a far-right rally, attracted several hundred users who said they were interested in it or planned to attend, Facebook said.
The news was earlier reported by The New York Times, which said lawmakers on Capitol Hill were told this week.
'Resisters' and 'Black Elevation'
Facebook said it found eight pages, 17 Facebook profiles, and seven Instagram accounts that were part of the effort with over 290,000 total followers.
"The most followed Facebook Pages were 'Aztlan Warriors,' 'Black Elevation,' 'Mindful Being,' and 'Resisters,'" Facebook said. "The remaining Pages had between zero and 10 followers, and the Instagram accounts had zero followers."
In some instances, the company said, the inauthentic accounts directly coordinated with unwitting legitimate Facebook users who were admins of other pages.
Facebook also published some examples of content it identified as part of the effort, including anti-colonial messages and a post attacking gender stereotypes.
Facebook won't make a judgment yet on who is behind the fake accounts
The accounts and pages also spent about $11,000 on 150 ads and used technology like virtual private networks and internet phone services to hide their tracks, according to Facebook. They paid third parties to run ads on their behalf, the company said.
"It's clear that whoever set up these accounts went to much greater lengths to obscure their true identities than the Russian-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) has in the past," Facebook said.
Samples of the inauthentic accounts' posts released by Facebook touch on hot-button political issues, but they don't reference 2018 political candidates.
On the call, COO Sheryl Sandberg did not say whether the accounts were part of an effort to directly influence the midterm elections.
"It's still very early," she said, adding: "We're always concerned with inauthentic content."
The blog post said: "We will not provide an assessment of the political motivations of the group behind this activity."
That said, Facebook acknowledged one instance of a connection between the Internet Research Agency and the fake accounts removed on Tuesday. At one point, Facebook said, one of the accounts was a co-admin of a page at the same time as a known IRA account — for seven minutes.
Ahead of the 2016 US elections, Russian operatives created fake Facebook accounts that pushed both right- and left-wing narratives in an attempt to sow political division.
Just last week, Facebook refused to answer questions about whether it had detected any such efforts to influence or interfere in the 2018 midterm elections.
Facebook, which has more than 2 billion members worldwide, has come under increased scrutiny following revelations that its social network was used to spread misinformation before the 2016 elections, as well as other important elections and referendums elsewhere, such as the Brexit campaign in Britain.
Alexei Oreskovic contributed reporting.