• The Star Staff

Facebook and Twitter warn of Russian meddling

By Sheera Frenkel and Julian E. Barnes

The Russian group that interfered in the 2016 presidential election is at it again, using a network of fake accounts and a website set up to look like a left-wing news site, Facebook and Twitter said on Tuesday.

The disinformation campaign by the Kremlin-backed group, known as the Internet Research Agency, is the first public evidence that the agency is trying to repeat its efforts from four years ago and push voters away from the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, to help President Donald Trump.

Intelligence agencies have warned for months that Russia and other countries were actively trying to disrupt the November election, and that Russian intelligence agencies were feeding conspiracy theories designed to alienate Americans by laundering them through fringe sites and social media.

Now Facebook and Twitter are offering evidence of this meddling, even as the White House in recent weeks has sought to more tightly control the flow of information about foreign threats to November’s election and downplay Russian interference. The Trump administration’s top intelligence official as recently as Sunday has tried to suggest that China is a graver risk than Moscow.

Facebook and Twitter, which were slow to react to wide-ranging disinformation campaigns on their services in 2016 and continue to face criticism — even from their own employees — that they are not doing enough to confront the issue, said they were warned by the FBI about the Russian effort.

Some U.S. officials are worried about a broad effort by Russian intelligence to use fringe websites, spread conspiracy theories and sow division in the United States. And some of the activity Facebook and Twitter identified Tuesday was just that kind of information laundering.

The fake network and site did not reach as big an audience as the group’s efforts in 2016, but the campaign came with a new wrinkle: The Russians hired real Americans to write for the website. The site, called Peace Data, also used personas with computer-generated images to create what looked like a legitimate news organization.

The Internet Research Agency was very active in the 2016 presidential election, and a recent bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report detailed Russian interference in support of Trump’s election.

The group has been a less important part of Russia’s operations this year, according to two U.S. intelligence officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The group’s recently discovered activities on Twitter and Facebook were almost overt, designed to be detected, the officials said.

But the Peace Data site appeared to be a more worrying example of “information laundering,” a more covert and potentially dangerous effort by Moscow. Russian intelligence agencies have used allies and operatives to place articles, including disinformation, into various fringe websites.

“The Russians are trying harder to hide; they are increasingly putting up more and more layers of obfuscation,” said Ben Nimmo, whose firm, Graphika, worked with Facebook to release a report on the fake site. “But they are still getting caught.”

The IRA appeared to be in the earliest stages of building an audience for the fake news site on Facebook. The group had created 13 fake accounts and two pages dedicated to promoting Peace Data, according to Facebook. The pages were followed by 14,000 people.

The goal, said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security, appeared to be to drive people to the Peace Data site, which billed itself as a “global news organization.”

The site’s first activity was in October 2019, when it began sharing articles published by other outlets. In March 2020, the site started publishing its own articles in English. Three editors were listed on the site. But when their photos were studied closely, it became apparent they were computer-generated images, said Nimmo.

“In terms of posting, they were clearly significantly left of the Biden-Harris campaign,” Nimmo said. He said topics ranged from racism in the United States to the environment and capitalism. Several articles argued that Biden would move the Democratic Party too far to the right.

Bill Russo, a spokesman for the Biden campaign, said the Russian activity was “proof of two immutable facts: Russia is attempting to interfere in our elections on behalf of Donald Trump, and Facebook’s platform is a key vector for these efforts.”

“President Trump’s refusal to speak out against Russian interference makes it all the more important that Facebook does more to enforce their rules and ensure their platform cannot be used to corrode the foundation of our democracy,” Russo said.

Facebook used the FBI tip to identify the Peace Data accounts and pages on its own platform, and to work with Twitter and other sites to remove the IRA-run network. The company said it contacted nearly 200 people who had been messaged by the network.

Twitter said on Tuesday that it had suspended five accounts associated with Peace Data for “platform manipulation that we can reliably attribute to Russian state actors,” a spokesman said.

The accounts were low-quality and engaged in spamming activity, Twitter said, so they did not gain a widespread following or attract much attention. Even so, Twitter said it would block any future attempts to share links from Peace Data.

But administration officials argue that Democrats are playing up the Russian threat to hurt Trump.

In an appearance on Fox News Channel on Sunday, John Ratcliffe, who was installed in May as director of national intelligence, asserted that China, not Russia, is the graver threat.

While people briefed on the intelligence concede that China wants to increase its influence in the United States, they said there was no direct evidence that Beijing had taken direct action to influence the presidential vote this year.

Researchers are also concerned about homegrown disinformation campaigns, and the latest Russian effort went to some lengths to appear like it was made in the United States. In addition to hiring American journalists and encouraging them to write in their own voices, the Peace Data website mixed pop culture, politics and activism to appeal to a young audience.

“It shows they are persistent and they are adaptive,” said Nimmo. “But it also shows they are having a much harder time than they used to in finding an audience.”

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