Facebook on Monday removed nearly 200 newly discovered fake accounts linked separately to Iran and to Russia’s Internet Research Agency. The takedowns demonstrate that foreign influence operations are already targeting the 2020 election, but provide evidence that Russia’s notorious troll farm is struggling to regain anything close to the influence in held in 2016.
The new wave of takedowns targeted separate networks of deceptive accounts created by Iran and Russia, including dozens of fake Facebook organization pages. In a press call, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said the takedowns show the company has come far since getting caught flat-footed in 2016. “The fact that we’ve identified them proactively should provide some confidence that our systems here are working,” Zuckerberg said.
The Russian accounts were far more focused on U.S. domestic issues, but in terms of sheer numbers and longevity, the Iranian effort outstripped Russia. The Iranian accounts included 21 Instagram accounts and 135 fake Facebook accounts propping up 26 phony organization pages and four Facebook groups. More than 90 of the accounts were primarily focused on U.S. readers, with the others mostly targeting Latin America. The accounts largely pushed links to Iranian propaganda on state-run news outlets, according to Facebook.
As with past takedowns, the company’s announcement only identified a handful of the Iranian personas. Of those, though, one stands out as eerily reminiscent of Russia’s 2016 efforts—a Facebook page called “BLMnews” that purported to be a news site covering the Black Lives Matters movement. The page had a meager 45 followers, and, according to Facebook, was devoted to driving traffic to an associated website that’s been operating since August 2016, according to Internet registration records.
Russia’s Internet Research Agency ran similar sites and Facebook pages during and after the 2016 election season, some with sizable followings. But so far the Saint Petersburg troll farm appears to have a long way to go. Of the 50 accounts banned by Facebook on Monday, all but one were on Instagram alone, with no Facebook presence at all. The Russian operation appears to be in the early stages, Facebook said. “They're still trying to build their audience, and they put significant operation security into concealing who they were,” said company cybersecurity chief Nathaniel Gleicher in Monday’s press call.
One sign of that improved op-sec is the dearth of text on the troll’s posts—perhaps a sign that Russia is seeking to avoid the linguistic giveaways that marred some of its 2016 content. According to social network analysis tool Graphika, which had inside access to Facebook’s data, the accounts generally pushed screenshots of other people’s tweets and memes with no commentary.
“Some posts gained hundreds of likes but typically obtained orders of magnitude fewer than the American personalities they copied,” reads Graphika’s report on the Russian accounts. “The ‘conservative’ accounts in the set had a particular fondness for the conservative partisan group Turning Point USA, often sharing its memes and comments.”
That may be a factor in the relatively limited reach of Russia’s identified personas. The 50 accounts together had a total of 246,000 followers, according to Facebook’s figures. “It seems they are getting stuck at the mimicry phase of infiltration,” said Clint Watts, a research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
As tallied by Graphika, the personas are the usual Russian mix of accounts pretending to be arch-conservatives in the heartland, and a roughly equal number pretending to be African American activists. A smattering of accounts were focused on more specific issues, like gun rights on the right or LGBTQ rights on the left.
The accounts were largely devoted to sowing division, but when they directly addressed the 2020 election, they followed the IRA’s 2016 playbook to the letter. The “conservative” accounts attacked liberals and heaped praise on Donald Trump, while “liberal” accounts derided the president while vocally supporting Bernie Sanders over Democratic frontrunners. Joe Biden is singled out for criticism in much the same way as Clinton in 2016.
Notably, Democrat Tulsi Gabbard, a favorite of Russia’s state-owned media, isn’t featured at all in the posts shared by Graphika and Facebook, despite recently being labeled a “Russian asset” by Hillary Clinton.