Facebook announced Tuesday that it had pulled nearly three dozen accounts from its main platform and from subsidiary Instagram, saying the pages had engaged in the same sort of divisive political trolling that Russian operatives conducted during the 2016 election season.
The company could not immediately identify who was behind the 32 accounts, but it said they had garnered hundreds of thousands of followers in their bid to sow discontent among voters.
The latest erased content, which Facebook said appeared on its platforms from March 2017 to May 2018, neither supported nor attacked specific elected officials or parties. Rather, the posts were designed to appeal to mindsets commonly associated with left-wing or right-wing groups on the American scene.
In one case, a group calling itself Aztlan Warriors posted an anti-colonialist message that featured American Indian warriors such as Crazy Horse and Geronimo. In another, a page called “Resisters” plugged a supposed protest against a right-wing rally in Washington in August.
“This kind of behavior is not allowed on Facebook because we don’t want people or organizations creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they are, or what they’re doing,” Facebook said.
Law enforcement officials and Congress were notified of Facebook’s steps, and authorities were provided with the information that triggered the removals, Facebook said.
More precise identification of the perpetrators was not immediately available.
“These bad actors have been more careful to cover their tracks, in part due to the actions we’ve taken to prevent abuse over the past year,” Facebook said. “For example, they used VPNs and internet phone services and paid third parties to run ads on their behalf. As we’ve told law enforcement and Congress, we still don’t have firm evidence to say with certainty who’s behind this effort.”
Despite that careful language, Democrats seized on the announcement as support for their argument that Russia is attacking the U.S.
Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, saw the Kremlin as a culprit.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, Mr. Warner’s counterpart on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said Facebook’s move was a warning that the U.S. faces renewed dangers this year.
“It is clear that much more work needs to be done before the midterm elections to harden our defenses, because foreign bad actors are using the exact same playbook they used in 2016 — dividing us along political and ideological lines to the detriment of our cherished democratic system,” he said.
Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican, called Facebook’s move a “significant step” but said more needs to be done to harden American systems against interference.
“Russia and China understand that successful information operations don’t create new problems but exploit existing fissures. That’s why Moscow is working to divide Americans by stoking both sides of nearly every culture war,” Mr. Sasse said. “We know that Russia is coming back in 2018, 2020 and beyond.”
American authorities say Russian agents, chiefly tied to the Internet Research Agency, spread fake news on their platforms during the 2016 election season.
Special counsel Robert Mueller has secured indictments against Internet Research Agency and Russian intelligence officials for conspiracy to meddle in the 2016 presidential election. His investigators traced social media troll posts and specific hacking attempts back to computers tied to Russian operations.
Evidence shows the social media efforts were puny, but the effects were magnified by the nature of the internet. The affair has taken on an outsized role in the political debate over the health of American democracy.
Facebook made the decision to pull the content amid a tumultuous summer for the internet giant. Last week, it suffered the biggest one-day drop in stock market history when its plummeting share price wiped out almost $120 billion in value.
That hit was tied to disappointing revenue figures and estimates. It also followed a handful of congressional hearings investigating misinformation campaigns that foreign actors mounted via the platform and Facebook’s treatment of conservative voices.
Facebook noted that it had found evidence of some connections between the 32 accounts and the Internet Research Agency accounts that were disabled last year, but it said the efforts made to scrub digital fingerprints from the fake pages and accounts might make it impossible to prove who was behind them.
Facebook noted that one earlier Internet Research Agency tactic was to engage with legitimate pages and accounts, thereby creating a denser network investigators would have more trouble untangling. It was while chasing one of these leads, however, that Facebook said it tied a disabled account to the bogus “Resisters” page.
“This page also previously had an IRA account as one of its admins for only seven minutes,” Facebook said. “These discoveries helped us uncover the other inauthentic accounts we disabled today.”
Similarly, Facebook said The Atlantic Council, an outside group helping weed out inauthentic actors, identified a 4,000-member group supposedly launched by Russian agents but dormant since it was disabled last year. Despite its disabled status, Facebook decided Tuesday to remove the group.