Facebook and Twitter have once again dismantled a Russian manipulation operation in the run-up to the US election, but social networks are now focused on other threats, less well controlled than these disinformation campaigns that marred the previous presidential election .
Facebook announced Tuesday that it had removed a “small network” of 13 accounts and pages linked to individuals associated in the past with a Russian organization close to the Kremlin, the “Internet Research Agency” (IRA). This agency is accused of having animated an anti-Clinton and pro-Trump campaign in the United States in 2016.
This time, the operation, first spotted by the FBI, was at an early stage.
According to Facebook, the accounts and pages in question were mainly followed in Arab countries. They only had 14,000 subscribers, of which only 200 were Americans on the English page.
Twitter has suspended 5 accounts for a “manipulation that we can reliably attribute to actors linked to the Russian state,” the platform said in a series of tweets on Tuesday.
The bulk of the campaign at this stage consisted mainly of a site masquerading as an independent media outlet, dubbed “PeaceData”.
He published and disseminated articles targeting left-wing sensitivities, on corruption, global warming, human rights and in general on “subjects which are hidden from the general public”, according to the home page.
Real journalists, fake media
“They’ve invested heavily in creating fake individuals, with personalities and profile photos, to make them look legitimate and real,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s director of security regulations, said in a statement. press conference.
Unlike other influencer campaigns of this type, this one worked less thanks to troll farms than to journalists, especially freelancers who thought they had been recruited by a committed and genuine news site.
“There is no indication that freelancers were not sincere in their writing work,” said Graphika, a company specializing in social network analysis, in a report on this operation.
According to the document, articles that attacked both right-wing and center-left policies reveal “an attempt to attract a larger Democratic audience for future manipulative operations.”
“This goes well with past attempts by the IRA to weaken support for 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton by infiltrating left-wing audiences,” they added.
The articles in Arabic focused mainly on human rights abuses by Western countries, wars in the Middle East and corruption. Some articles also attacked France and President Emmanuel Macron, to accuse them of an “imperialist” approach in Africa, they detail.
The challenge of the day
The various actors, foreign and national, who orchestrate these operations, have perfected their techniques to be less easily spotted, recalled Nathaniel Gleicher.
More discreet, they are also less effective, and the collaboration between the different platforms, the authorities and the civil society makes it possible to generally stop them before they have managed to build a substantial audience.
Since 2017, Facebook says it has dismantled 100 networks around the world for “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” including a dozen linked to the IRA, which attempted to spread false information, conspiracy theories, hate speech and hijacked videos.
The platform is preparing for more aggressive attempts in the event of prolonged uncertainty over the US election results in November, “a favorable period” for the spread of rumors.
“But we are also focused on operations that don’t build networks, and just wait for the right moment to release spurious content. We have to be ready, ”elaborated Nathaniel Gleicher.
He expects “hack-and-leak” tactics, where state-linked entities give pirated information to the media and use networks to spread it. That’s what happened with emails from Hillary Clinton.
“And then there are the things that no one has thought of yet,” he added. “So we have tools and teams mobilized to react quickly”.