On Monday, Facebook announced that it had suspended Instagram and Facebook accounts linked to Russian-government efforts to manipulate America’s 2020 election. That came several hours after Czech Republic officials said they had dismantled a Russian espionage cell, disguised as a cybersecurity company, in anticipation of a wave of cyber attacks. The two incidents show that Russia is continuing its active-measures campaign against Western democracies on multiple fronts.
“We removed 50 Instagram accounts and one account on Facebook that originated in Russia and focused primarily on the US,” wrote Nathaniel Gleicher, who runs Facebook’s cybersecurity policy in a company blog post. “We detected this activity as part of our ongoing review of suspected coordinated inauthentic behavior ahead of US elections.”
The use of Instagram shows a growing sophistican and comfort with emerging platforms. The content of the posts shows that Russian operatives are watching the U.S. presidential race closely and are already looking to exploit friction within the Democratic party. Some posts used the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag to boost Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-VT. They also played up tension over the Confederate flag and racism, Gleicher wrote.
These weren’t obscure, unpopular accounts. Facebook reported that they had well above average reach. “About 246,000 accounts followed one or more of these Instagram accounts (about 60% of which were in the US),” Gleicher wrote.
Meanwhile, in Europe, Czech counterintelligence officials told lawmakers on Monday that they had broken up an espionage and hacking outfit, managed by the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB. “It was created by people with links to Russian intelligence services and financed from Russia and the Russian Embassy,” Michal Koudelka, director of the Czech Security Information Service, told lawmakers.
Peter Singer, a New America strategist whose latest book is LikeWar, told Defense One in a message, “The latest news shows yet again the central lesson that Russia and every other actor took from 2016, that these ‘LikeWar’ campaigns not only work, but that you will pay little to no cost for running them. Until both sides of that dynamic are shifted, limiting their effectiveness through digital literacy and company action, as well as creating consequences for attacking our democracy (which the White House has been, well, on the wrong side), we’ll see it continue. Indeed, we’ve already seen copycats by other groups and governments ranging from China to Turkey to targeting at state and local level.”
Indeed, Facebook’s Monday announcement also disclosed that the company had shuttered Iranian accounts as well for engaging in similar behavior.
The trend will continue, said Alina Polyakova, the director of the Project on Global Democracy and Emerging Technology at the Brookings Institution. “The Russian toolkit is increasingly being copied by other state actors,” she told Defense One in a phone interview, describing the imitation of Russian techniques as a pattern she had seen build over the last few months.
The Russian strategy is “no longer to channel the noise in a specific direction, toward a specific narrative, but blend in with the noise as a way of amplifying existing fissures,” she said, meaning political and racial tension present in U.S. society.
Polyakova said she doubts that Facebook had managed to close all of its accounts connected to Russian influence operations. “My question whenever I see a takedown is, how much of the whole problem does that represent?” she said. “Is it 5 percent of the problem that Facebook just addressed? Is it 1 percent? It’s impossible to get a sense of how big the problem is when we see these sorts of individual actions being taken by Facebook and other social media companies.”
Speaking to the Washington Post last week, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook has become a “much better place” because of the company’s efforts to limit disinformation. But, he cautioned, he “could never say that it’s going to go away, because they’re going to keep on pushing.”
Polyakova said Facebook is doing better now than in 2016, when Zuckerberg was dismissive of the notion that Russia might be using his service to push disinformation. “To think it influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,” he said, a statement he’s since said he regrets.
Polyakova said the U.S. government needs to step up its own efforts to stop Russia influencers. The government has levied sanctions on individuals such as Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, who was running the Russian Internet Research Agency, but these measures don’t get to the heart of the problem.
But U.S. lawmakers have been reluctant to act more broadly.
“Congress hasn’t passed one piece of legislation addressing this issue specifically. There have been a number of proposals but none of them had been voted on or legislated,” she said. “There’s so much that could still be done.”
The I juexecutive branch is having trouble coordinating its response, with different parts of the problem handled by the State Department, FBI, DHS, and other outfits. “It’s unclear who owns this problem across all the different agencies. That makes it impossible to know: is there a strategy?” Polyakova said.
The European Union has taken a different approach, setting up a task force to watch Russian messaging efforts and official media for new disinformation narratives. “In the U.S. we don’t have anything like that and as a result, we’ve fallen so far behind,” she said. “It looks like the U.S. is still an open playing field for Russia and other countries that want to interfere in our democratic processes.”