Threat Management, Threat Intelligence

Facebook says Russian troll farm bought, placed ads during 2016 campaign

After issuing repeated denials, Facebook said Wednesday that an internal investigation found a Russian "troll farm" bought ads from the social media giant that and apparently planted them, some in targeted markets, "to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights," company CSO Alex Stamos wrote in a blog post

While at $100,000 the money spent on ads was small, it raises questions as to whether Russian operatives were aided by U.S. persons as to where to target the ads, according to the Washington Post, which broke the story Wednesday. 

"As far as how the attack was carried out, It looks like individuals would create fake, or cut-out accounts. Even though the accounts were associated with US IPs, they had language settings set to Russian, suggesting they were native Russian speakers behind the effort," said Dimitri Sirota, cofounder and CEO at BigID, who noted those behind what resembles an Soviet-era propaganda campaign with a modern twist are professionals who have likely improved their game since.

"This is a very significant set of data points produced by Facebook,” the Post quoted Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, as saying after committee members heard from Facebook officials behind closed doors. “Left unanswered in what we received from Facebook — because it is beyond the scope of what they are able to determine — is whether there was any coordination between these social media trolls and the campaign. We have to get to the bottom of that.”

Sirota said the timing and circumstances of the ad spends are cause for further investigation. "What's unusual about this revelation is that the effort started in June of 2015. Trump announced his candidacy June 16. This effort was organized and involved many people," he said. "Somehow they were able to mobilize an organization and fake stories just as a candidate they liked took the stage. It could possibly be a coincidence, but as the Soviets used to say, there are no coincidences in politics."

Facebook's probe led it to 3,300 ads that digitally trace back a Russian company as well as 470 dubious accounts seemingly operated from Russia with their own ties to the Russian company and promotion of the ads. 

Schiff's committee, which along with other Congressional committees and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III are conducting investigations into Russia's interference into the U.S. presidential election, will question other social media companies to see if they've uncovered similar activities, the congressman told the Post. 

Reuters reported late Wednesday that Facebook was cooperating with Mueller's investigation and is "exploring several new improvements to our systems for keeping inauthentic accounts and activity off our platform," Stamos wrote.

"Facebook describes several actions in their blog to curb foreign interference and abuse of its platform, including better anomaly detection and better verification of accounts. This is a matter Facebook should take seriously, as most people now receive their news from their Facebook feed," said Sirota. "Also, their CEO is rumored to have an interest in politics, so it would be terrible if his own efforts are compromised by his own creation."

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