WASHINGTON — The State Department late Wednesday applauded Facebook’s “decision to expunge accounts, orchestrated from abroad, that foment division and violence inside the United States.”
“These efforts are part of a broader external campaign aimed at weakening America and threatening our way of life by pitting citizens against each other and sowing discord in general,” press secretary Heather Nauert said in a statement. “We urge all technology companies to take an aggressive approach to this insidious problem. We demand that Russia and all other malign actors immediately cease this reckless behavior.”
Facebook said Tuesday that it “removed 32 Pages and accounts from Facebook and Instagram because they were involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior.”
“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 social media company said in a statement. “We’re still in the very early stages of our investigation and don’t have all the facts — including who may be behind this… 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. We believe this could be partly due to changes we’ve made over the last year to make this kind of abuse much harder.”
Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy at Facebook, said one of the fake pages scheduled an Aug. 10-12 protest to the white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Washington. While many authentic local activist groups have announced protests to counter the rally, Gleicher said legitimate Facebook Pages contacted by the fake “Resisters” account “unwittingly helped build interest in ‘No Unite Right 2 – DC’ and posted information about transportation, materials, and locations so people could get to the protests.”
“We disabled the event earlier today and have reached out to the admins of the five other Pages to update them on what happened. This afternoon, we’ll begin informing the approximately 2,600 users interested in the event, and the more than 600 users who said they’d attend, about what happened,” Gleicher said. “We don’t have all the facts, but we’ll work closely with others as we continue our investigation. We hope to get new information from law enforcement and other companies so we can better understand what happened — and we’ll share any additional findings with law enforcement and Congress.”
Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) said Facebook’s discovery “is further evidence that the Kremlin continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to sow division and spread disinformation, and I am glad that Facebook is taking some steps to pinpoint and address this activity.”
“I also expect Facebook, along with other platform companies, will continue to identify Russian troll activity and to work with Congress on updating our laws to better protect our democracy in the future,” Warner added in a statement.
Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said he was “glad to see that Facebook is taking a much-needed step toward limiting the use of their platform by foreign influence campaigns.”
“The goal of these operations is to sow discord, distrust, and division in an attempt to undermine public faith in our institutions and our political system,” he said. “The Russians want a weak America.”
Activists behind one of the removed pages said that they’re legitimate non-Russians planning a counterprotest but were swept up in Facebook’s removals.
“There’s nothing more dangerous for online free speech than when technologically illiterate politicians are screaming at web platforms to ‘just do something’ about a problem that’s actually quite difficult to address,” Fight for the Future’s Evan Greer, a longtime political organizer, told Gizmodo. “It’s clear that in Facebook’s haste to appease lawmakers, they silenced perfectly legitimate political speech. You couldn’t ask for a better example to show that this type of overzealous censorship is not the solution to the very real challenges democracy and human rights face in the digital age.”