Facebook has suspended 470 accounts found to be spreading disinformation and divisive views most likely as part of an orchestrated Russian campaign to influence US public opinion.
In a blog post, Facebook's chief security officer Alex Stamos said that the accounts appeared to be part of an organised campaign to sow disinformation.
"In reviewing the ads buys, we have found approximately $100,000 in ad spending from June of 2015 to May of 2017 — associated with roughly 3,000 ads — that was connected to about 470 inauthentic accounts and Pages in violation of our policies," he said. "Our analysis suggests these accounts and Pages were affiliated with one another and likely operated out of Russia."
While these ads did not appear to be related to any particular political candidate, they may have been intended to amplify devisive views among the US population as they were focused on hot-button topics such as LGBT issues, gun rights and immigration.
In a separate case Facebook also uncovered spend worth $50,000 for ads in English that were ordered from a US IP address but using the Russian language.
While it is difficult to definitively pin any specific instance of online disinformation on Russia, the sowing of confusion through disinformation is certainly a political method long used by the Kremlin, its aim to undermine confidence in information sources and institutions by mixing facts and falsehoods and amplifying certain points of view so that people become uncertain about what or who to trust. The aim is not to convince people of the merits of a particular political viewpoint, but rather to persuade them to believe in nothing.
The fine grained targeting deployed by advertising platforms like Facebook is certainly a gift to those who would spread individualised propaganda.
In the past Facebook has denied that its platform has been used to spread fake news. Days after the election of Donald Trump, CEO Mark Zuckerberg went as far as to dismiss the idea that Facebook might have influenced the outcome as "crazy".
Evidence of the organised political use of its platform poses difficult questions for the social media giant which has always insisted that it is not a media company and therefore is not responsible for editorial control over content it hosts. Nevertheless, the company has introduced machine learning and human-based detection techniques in an attempt to root out offensive material, fake news and false accounts.
Facebook has passed details about the suspicious advertising campaign to the US authorities who are currently investigating whether Russian use of the internet helped swing the recent US elections.
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