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Illustration by Security Management

Twitter and Facebook Move Against Disinformation Tactics

Facebook and Twitter reported that the FBI warned them that Russia is again targeting Americans with disinformation.

According to a New York Times article, the Bureau informed the companies that the same Kremlin-backed group that interfered with the 2016 U.S. presidential election has created a network of fake user accounts as part of its campaign to manipulate American voters to support U.S. President Donald Trump. The Internet Research Agency (IRA) also created a website, Peace Data, meant to appear as a left-wing news source.

Following the warning from the FBI, on 1 September Facebook took down 13 connected fake accounts and two pages on its site, which were created by the IRA. These operatives used U.S. journalists to pen articles that were critical of Democratic presidential nominee former U.S. President Joe Biden and running mate U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA).

Twitter reported that it suspended five accounts linked to Peace Data, citing that the accounts were attempting to manipulate the platform on behalf of Russian state actors.

Prior to taking down the pages and accounts, Facebook shared access to the content with social media analyzer Graphika. The firm found that the IRA used its Facebook accounts and pages to publish more than 500 articles in English and more than 200 articles in Arabic between February and August 2020.

A report from Graphika, published at the beginning of September, determined that the recent efforts in the United States orchestrated by the IRA were aimed at environmentalists, democratic socialists, and frustrated Democrats.

“This shows a consistent focus on a core constituency: left-leaning voters in the United States and United Kingdom who may be dissuaded from supporting  the more centrist leadership of the Democratic and Labour parties,” the report said. The focus on the United States and its upcoming election, although small, “suggests an attempt to build a left-wing audience and steer it away from Biden’s campaign, in the same way that the original IRA tried to depress progressive and minority support for Hillary Clinton in 2016.”

A recent study from the German Marshall Fund (GMF) of the United States found that along with more common tactics like cyberattacks and disinformation, authoritarian regimes, notably  Russia and China, have spent more than $300 million to interfere in democratic processes more than 100 times. Their efforts have focused on the United States and another 32 countries over the past 10 years.

Coining such forms of foreign interference as “malign finance,” the GMF study Covert Foreign Money: Financial Loopholes Exploited by Authoritarians to Fund Political Interference in Democracies defines the term as actions that involve “the funding of foreign political parties, candidates, campaigns, well-connected elites, or politically influential groups, often through non-transparent structures designed to obfuscate ties to a nation state or its proxies.”

Although it would cost regime-supported operatives or groups $3 million to $15 million to purchase influence in a major foreign national election, an average instance involves directing $1 million towards a preferred political party.

The study found that these financial attacks have “aggressively” increased in frequency, “from two to three annually before 2014 to 15 to 30 in each year since 2016.”

After analyzing 115 instances of authoritarian malign finance, the GMF found that roughly 83 percent of such attacks were possible through legal loopholes, including straw donors (22 percent), illegality (17 percent), in-kind gifts (15 percent), non-profits (13 percent), companies (11 percent), online ads (11 percent), online outlets (10 percent), and technology (1 percent).

Although the United States has disclosure rules and restrictions on foreign purchases of political ads that appear on television, radio, or in newspapers, there are no such enforcements on online political advertisements. This continues even after the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee released reports that the IRA troll farm had purchased online ads meant to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“Big tech platforms are each voluntarily implementing their own versions of protections, which are often inconsistent and pregnable, while smaller and up-an-coming providers have little or no similar systems,” the GMF study reported. “Meanwhile, foreign powers continue to experiment with new ways to buy political ads without detection, like ‘franchising’ troll farms in Africa with local employees.”

The study also recommended eight changes to U.S. policy to curb malign finance, including broaden the definition of in-kind contributions; report campaign contacts with agents of foreign powers; outlaw anonymous shell companies and restrict political activity by U.S. subsidiaries of foreign parent companies; disclose funders of non-profits; disclose online political ad buyers and ban foreign purchases; disclose media outlets’ foreign funding; ban crypto-donations and report small donor identities to the Federal Election Commission (FEC); and coordinate across the executive branch to reform the FEC and U.S. Treasury Department.