Facebook scraps accounts trying to influence November's midterm elections

July 31 (Reuters) - Facebook Inc has identified a new coordinated political influence campaign to mislead users and organize rallies ahead of November's U.S. congressional elections, taking down dozens of fake accounts on its site, the company said on Tuesday.

A Russian propaganda arm tried to tamper in the 2016 U.S. election by posting and buying ads on Facebook, according to the company and U.S. intelligence agencies. Moscow has denied involvement.

Facebook on Tuesday said had it removed 32 pages and accounts from Facebook and Instagram, part of an effort to combat foreign meddling in U.S. elections, attempts that lawmakers have called dangerous for democracy.

The company said it was still in the early stages of its investigation and did not yet know who may be behind the influence campaign for 2018 elections that will determine whether or not the Republican Party keeps control of Congress.

39 PHOTOS
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before Congress
See Gallery
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before Congress
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 10: Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg, 33, was called to testify after it was reported that 87 million Facebook users had their personal information harvested by Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm linked to the Trump campaign. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc., waits to begin a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, April 10, 2018. Lawmakers will grill Zuckerberg on issues ranging from the troves of data vacuumed up by app developers and political consultant Cambridge Analytica to Russian operatives' use of the social network to spread misinformation and discord during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee joint hearing about Facebook on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, April 10, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee joint hearing about Facebook on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, April 10, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees joint hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees joint hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees joint hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
The witness table is seen before Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appearance at a joint hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee joint hearing about Facebook on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, April 10, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 10: Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg, 33, was called to testify after it was reported that 87 million Facebook users had their personal information harvested by Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm linked to the Trump campaign. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg listens while testifying before a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg takes a drink while testifying before a Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees joint hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Alex Brandon/Pool
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg takes a drink while testifying before a Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees joint hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Alex Brandon/Pool
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees joint hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sits down following a break to resume testifying before a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sits down following a break to resume testifying before a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Senator John Kennedy (R-LA) listens as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) listens as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Senator John Kennedy (R-LA) (L) looks on as Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) holds up the privacy agreement of Facebook as its CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg responds to a question about his own personal information becoming public as he testifies before a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is surrounded by members of the media as he arrives to testify before a Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees joint hearing regarding the company?s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 09: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (2 L) arrives at a meeting with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, April 9, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg is scheduled to testify before a few Congressional committees this week on the mass users data Facebook has shared with political operatives. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 9: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives for his meeting with Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., in the Hart Senate Office Building on Monday, April 9, 2018. Zuckerberg is on Capitol Hill to testify before the House and Senate this week. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Mark Zuckerberg and Andrea Besmehn, Mark Zuckerbergs executive assistant at Facebook depart US Senator Bill Nelson's, D-Florida, office on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on April 9, 2018. Embattled Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg has placed the blame for security lapses at the world's largest social network squarely on himself as he girded Monday for appearances this week before angry lawmakers.In prepared remarks released by a congressional panel, Zuckerberg admitted he was too idealistic and failed to grasp how the platform -- used by two billion people -- could be abused and manipulated. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON / The erroneous mention[s] appearing in the metadata of this photo by JIM WATSON has been modified in AFP systems in the following manner: [Andrea Besmehn (R), Mark Zuckerbergs executive assistant at Facebook] instead of [Priscilla Chan]. Please immediately remove the erroneous mention[s] from all your online services and delete it (them) from your servers. If you have been authorized by AFP to distribute it (them) to third parties, please ensure that the same actions are carried out by them. Failure to promptly comply with these instructions will entail liability on your part for any continued or post notification usage. Therefore we thank you very much for all your attention and prompt action. We are sorry for the inconvenience this notification may cause and remain at your disposal for any further information you may require. (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 09: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (C) leaves after a meeting with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, April 9, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg is scheduled to testify before a few Congressional committees this week on the mass users data Facebook has shared with political operatives. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 09: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (3rd L) leaves after a meeting with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, April 9, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg is scheduled to testify before a few Congressional committees this week on the mass users data Facebook has shared with political operatives. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc., exits after a meeting with Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, not pictured, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, April 9, 2018. Zuckerberg, in prepared testimony for the U.S. House of Representatives, said all of Facebook's problems are his mistake. Photographer: Yuri Gripas/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 09: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (C) leaves the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) after meeting with Feinstein on Capitol Hill on April 9, 2018 in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg is meeting with individual senators in advance of tomorrow's scheduled hearing before the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committeees. Zuckerberg is under pressure to explain why tens of millions of Facebook user's private information was shared with Cambridge Analytica. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 09: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (C) leaves the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) after meeting with Feinstein on Capitol Hill on April 9, 2018 in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg is meeting with individual senators in advance of tomorrow's scheduled hearing before the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committeees. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 09: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (3rd L) leaves after a meeting with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, April 9, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg is scheduled to testify before a few Congressional committees this week on the mass users data Facebook has shared with political operatives. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE
  

Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said on a call with reporters that the attempts to manipulate public opinion would likely become more sophisticated to evade Facebook’s scrutiny, calling it an "arms race."

"This kind of behavior is not allowed on Facebook because we don't want people or organizations creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they are, or what they’re doing," the company said in a blogpost.

More than 290,000 accounts followed at least one of the pages and that about $11,000 had been spent on about 150 ads, Facebook said. The pages had created about 30 events since May 2017.

Facebook for months has been on the defensive about influence activity on its site and concerns over user privacy tied to longstanding agreements with developers that allowed them access to private user data.

SEE ALSO: Dem. senator says her office was target of hacking attempt, issue is 'widespread'

 

DIVISIVE ISSUES

Facebook identified influence activity around at least two issues, including a counter-protest to a "Unite the Right II" rally set next week in Washington. The other was the #AbolishICE social media campaign aimed at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

In the blogpost, Facebook said it was revealing the influence effort now in part because of the rally. A previous event last year in Charlottesville, South Carolina, led to violence by white supremacists.

Facebook said it would tell users who had expressed interest in the counter-protest what action it had taken and why.

Facebook officials on a call with reporters said that one known account from Russia's Internet Research Agency was a co-administrator of one of the fake pages for seven minutes, but the company did not believe that was enough evidence to attribute the campaign to the Russian government.

The company previously had said 126 million Americans may have seen Russian-backed political content on Facebook over a two-year period, and that 16 million may have been exposed to Russian information on Instagram.

Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, in a statement urged Facebook to move against foreign groups trying to sway American voters and to warn legitimate users that such activity, as seen in 2016, is recurring this year.

"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.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a Republican, said in a statement there would be a hearing on Wednesday about the online threat to U.S. election security.

Burr said the goal of influence operations "is to sow discord, distrust, and division in an attempt to undermine public faith in our institutions and our political system. The Russians want a weak America."

Washington imposed punitive sanctions on Russia following U.S. intelligence agency conclusions that Moscow interfered to undermine the 2016 U.S. elections, one of the reasons U.S.-Russian relations are at a post-Cold War low. Both U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin have said, however, that they want to improve ties between the two nuclear powers.

Facebook disclosed in September that Russians under fake names had used the social network to try to influence U.S. voters in the months before and after the 2016 election, writing about divisive issues, setting up events and buying ads.

U.S. intelligence agencies said Russian state operators ran the campaign combining fake social media posts and hacking into Democratic Party networks, eventually becoming an effort to help Republican candidate Trump, who scored a surprise victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Over the past several months, the company has taken steps meant to reassure U.S. and European lawmakers that further regulation is unnecessary. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg says the company has 20,000 people working to police and protect the site.

Costs associated with that effort are part of the reason Facebook said last week that it expects its profit margins to decline, a warning that sent shares tumbling about 25 percent, the biggest one-day loss of market cap in U.S. stock market history. Shares of Facebook were up about 1.5 percent in Tuesday's midafternoon trading, part of a broader tech rebound.

(Joseph Menn and Paresh Dave in San Francisco; additional reporting by Munsif Vengattil in Bengaluru, Kevin Drawbaugh in Washington; writing by Peter Henderson; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty and Grant McCool

Read Full Story