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The Russian connectionRussia’s disinformation posts reached 126 million Americans: Facebook

Published 31 October 2017

Disinformation specialists at the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Kremlin-affiliated Russian group, created 80,000 Facebook posts which were directly served to 29 million Americans. After the posts were liked, shared, and commented on, they traveled to the news feeds of approximately 126 million Americans at some point between January 2015 and August 2017. These numbers mean that Russian-produced disinformation and propaganda reached about 40 percent of the U.S. population. Facebook says that IRA’s 80,000 posts come on top the 3,000 political ads created by the IRA – and that these ads were seen by 11.4 million Americans. “Many of the ads and posts we’ve seen so far are deeply disturbing — seemingly intended to amplify societal divisions and pit groups of people against each other,” said Facebook’s General Counsel Colin Stretch. “They would be controversial even if they came from authentic accounts in the United States. But coming from foreign actors using fake accounts, they are simply unacceptable.”

Facebook’s General Counsel Colin Stretch will this morning (Tuesday) tell a Senate Judiciary subcommittee that twenty-nine million Americans were directly served content created by the disinformation specialists at the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Kremlin-affiliated Russian group. The IRA is owned and run by a Russian oligarch who is a close ally of Vladimir Putin.

The 80,000 posts created by the IRA, after they were liked, shared, and commented on, traveled to the news feeds of approximately 126 million Americans at some point between January 2015 and August 2017.

The numbers provided by Stretch mean that Russian-produced disinformation and propaganda reached about 40 percent of the U.S. population.

Stretch says that the IRA’s 80,000 posts come on top the 3,000 political ads created by the IRA specialists – and that these ads were seen by 11.4 million Americans.

The IRA and Russian government operatives created thousands of fake accounts to disseminate the Russian disinformation on Facebook – and many of the same fake accounts were used for tens of thousands of Russian disinformation posts on Twitter.

Though the volume of these stories was a tiny fraction of the overall content on Facebook, any amount is too much,” Stretch will tell the senators.

Many of the ads and posts we’ve seen so far are deeply disturbing — seemingly intended to amplify societal divisions and pit groups of people against each other,” he goes on. “They would be controversial even if they came from authentic accounts in the United States. But coming from foreign actors using fake accounts, they are simply unacceptable.”

Politico reports that Stretch will testify that Facebook established a conclusive link between APT 28 — a hacking group also known as “Fancy Bear,” whose hackers work for the GRU (Russian military intelligence) — and the website DC Leaks. U.S. intelligence agencies have established that DC Leaks, which describes itself as an activist site, is a Russian front for posting stolen emails from U.S. political targets.

Although Russian government hackers stole emails from both parties and both campaigns, DC Leaks published only emails stolen from the DNC and the Clinton campaign as part of the Russian government’s broad hacking and disinformation effort to help Donald Trump win the November election.

The GRU also fed stolen DNC and Clinton emails to Wikileaks. Wikileaks published about 3,000 emails out of the 22,000 emails the GRU had stolen from the Clinton campaign. The emails selected by Wikileaks for publication, and the schedule of their publication, were aimed to inflict maximum damage on Clinton and be of maximum benefit to Trump. Special counsel Robert Muller is now investigating whether Wikileaks was given help by Trump campaign operatives in selecting the emails and scheduling their publication.

The Hill notes that Facebook’s testimony offers a portrait of a company in a state of shock at the realization of how Russian government agencies had used the company’s media platform for political ends.

The written testimony also shows a company eager to find a solutions which will prevent Russia or other actors from exploiting the company’s platform in the future.

Bloomberg reports that Tuesday’s hearings offer evidence that Facebook is willing to do its part to cooperate with Congress both to understand the scope of the problem and find ways to prevent a recurrence.

Tuesday hearings will be followed by two hearings on Wednesday, and Bloomberg notes that the company, in the week leading to today’s hearing, has engaged in a communication offensive directed at lawmakers. The campaign included blog posts, executive outreach, and employing crisis public relations firms. Facebook may be hoping that its cooperation now may make lawmakers less likely to demand the imposition of cumbersome regulation.

“The foreign interference we saw is reprehensible and outrageous and opened a new battleground for our company, our industry and our society,” Stretch’s says in his written testimony. “That foreign actors, hiding behind fake accounts, abused our platform and other internet services to try to sow division and discord — and to try to undermine our election process — is an assault on democracy, and it violates all of our values.”

The testimony explains how Facebook’s news feed and advertising operations work, and then goes into detail about how the Internet Research Agency’s actions affected its audience. Facebook stresses that it did try to make its platforms more secure before the election, including by taking down 5.8 million fake Facebook accounts in October 2016.

The company also said it detected and “mitigated” Russia’s spread of hacked information on its platform ahead of the election, which was “aimed at employees of major U.S. political parties.”

Facebook will explain to lawmakers how it will work to block new fake accounts, including by requiring political advertisers to provide more documentation about their identities. Facebook, however, does not explicitly endorse any legislation, but says: “we’re taking steps where we can on our own.”