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Facebook grapples with evolving threat in the countdown to midterm elections

Facebook said on Tuesday that it has removed 32 fake, coordinated accounts that appeared to be designed to try and influence voters with misinformation and divisive messages on cultural issues -- and they could be connected to Russia. John Yang learns more from Yamiche Alcindor.

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  • John Yang:

    The elections are now fewer than 100 days away, and once again, there's a covert campaign under way to influence the voters on social media with misinformation that attempts to foster divisive messages on cultural issues.

    Facebook today disclosed that it has removed a series of accounts and posts tied to that campaign.

    We should note that the "NewsHour" works with Facebook on some projects.

    Yamiche Alcindor has been looking into this, and joins us now.

    So, Yamiche, what did Facebook say that they did today?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, fake pages are leading to real-world action.

    That's why Facebook took this really remarkable step to take down these pages. They took down 32 fake accounts on both Facebook and Instagram. They also said that more than 290,000 accounts were being followed by at least one of those pages. And they also said that 150 ads were connected to those fake accounts. And it cost about $11,000 on Facebook.

    So even though these 32 accounts might small like a small number, this is still a big step from the sources I have been talking to.

  • John Yang:

    And what do we know about who's behind these fake accounts. And, as you say, these lead to real actions. What real actions might have come from them?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, essentially, this is really about pushing America on its weaknesses.

    It's about all the things that we argue about. Many of these accounts were about race. They were about abolishing ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. These are things that real-world Democrats are pushing for.

    And, in this case, there are some important things that I want to note. The first one is that their most followed Facebook accounts were the Aztlan Warriors, they were Black Elevation, Mindful Being and Resistors.

    They were all pointing at people for — who are really interested in progressive action. The other thing was that some of these pages were up for longer than a year. That's really important, because I pushed Facebook today when they had their call today, and I asked them, how long are you getting these pages? How long are they are up there? How many people are exposed?

    And, essentially, they could be up there for as long as a year.

  • John Yang:

    And Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook does say that they're trying to combat these fake accounts and they're trying to move as quickly as they can.

    What does today tell us about what's being done or what others are trying to do to the U.S. voters in this 2018 election, compared to, say, the 2016 election?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, first, Russia is the number one suspect here.

    Facebook did not want to talk about who could have been behind these accounts because they said that there isn't enough evidence to point the finger at Russia. But they're working very closely with authorities to figure out really who's behind this.

    And I pressed Facebook again on this idea of, well, how are you doing it? How are we — how do we know that this is going to essentially be resolved?

    And Facebook said, look, we're doing the best that we can. And they're also pointing to this idea that there were a lot of different events that were taking place while these pages were happening.

    So I want to walk you through some of these things. Facebook said 30 events were created by these Facebook accounts. That means that there were people actually going to places because these people wanted them to go there.

    The other thing that's important, they said that they deactivated some of these event pages. And now that they're — that they're talking to people, they're having to actually contact people and say, hey, that rally that you signed up for, it was actually a fake account.

    So you're seeing these images, and you're seeing something like the No Unite the Right image, which is a rally that was going to be taking place, and people are saying that they're suddenly shocked by the idea that these aren't just fake accounts, they were actually talking to real people.

  • John Yang:

    And on Capitol Hill, you have had a couple of senators say that there have been phishing on their Web sites, on their Internet accounts.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    That's the number one thing that now when we look at — when we look forward at what's going on with midterms, we have both Sheryl Sandberg, who is the chief operating officer of Facebook, saying that this is really something that's evolving.

    Listen to what she had to say to a group of reporters today on the call.

  • Sheryl Sandberg:

    It's clear that whoever set up these accounts when too much greater lengths to obscure their true identities than the Russian-based Internet Research Agency, IRA, did in the run-up to the U.S. presidential election.

    Security is an arms race and it's never done. We have made it harder for inauthentic actors to operate on Facebook, yet we face determined, well-funded adversaries who won't give up, and who are constantly changing tactics.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    So, as you can hear, these are really evolving threats.

    The midterms are a real target here. As you mentioned, they were already two Democratic senators who have been targeted, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.

    That said, it tells people that these hackers are really looking at these people and saying, I want to target this person because I know what their beliefs are.

    Tomorrow, there's going to be a Senate hearing about foreign influence on social media. So this is something that's definitely going to keep going on.

  • John Yang:

    Yamiche Alcindor, thank you very much.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Thanks.

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