Facebook announced a new takedown of 122 user accounts, pages, groups, and Instagram profiles originating in Russia that violated its policy against foreign or government interference. According to Facebook’s internal investigation, the network had links to Russian military intelligence and primarily targeted Ukraine, along with neighboring countries in the region.
The operation was characterized by greater tactical sophistication aimed at circumventing Facebook’s monitoring capabilities and obscuring attribution – similar to the tactics observed in the Russian Internet Research Agency’s operation across eight African countries exposed last October. In particular, the individuals behind this latest network posed as locals and used fake accounts to manage several groups and pages, as well as post and comment on various content. Notably, much of this activity occurred throughout 2016 and 2017, and while some of the accounts in question were detected and disabled by Facebook’s automated systems, many remained active until last week’s takedown.
Lessons for the Future
The operation was examined by Graphika, a social media analytics company, prior to Facebook’s takedown of the accounts. This analysis highlights three main takeaways:
- The ascendance of private messaging: beyond making public posts, these accounts engaged – and sometimes entrapped – their targets via private messaging. Such use of direct messages and emails to approach journalists and political figures has featured in several other information operations and is of growing tactical significance.
- Coordinated activity across platforms: Graphika found that the Russian operation went beyond the Facebook accounts in question to a number of other smaller online platforms and blogs, which can be more easily leveraged to “launder” content and obscure its origins on social media.
- Media organizations are targets too: agents of disinformation seek to legitimize their content by having it re-published by credible outlets to which they can outsource “the narrative baton.”