(Adds Facebook report released, provides link)
By Joseph Menn
SAN FRANCISCO, April 27 Facebook Inc
acknowledged on Thursday that it has become a battleground for
governments seeking to manipulate public opinion in other
countries and outlined new measures it is taking to combat what
it calls “information operations” that go well beyond the
phenomenon known as fake news.
In a report and summary of response plans on its website on
Thursday, Facebook describes well-funded and subtle efforts by
nations and other organizations to spread misleading information
and falsehoods for geopolitical goals.
These initiatives go much further than posting fake news
stories to include amplification - essentially widening the
circulation of posts through a variety of means - carried out by
government employees or paid professionals, often using fake
Reuters reviewed an advance copy of the 13-page report,
which was written by two veteran security analysts who joined
Facebook from cyber security firms FireEye Inc and Dell
SecureWorks, along with Facebook’s chief security officer.
Facebook said its security team would now fight information
operations, which it regards as a more complex problem than
traditional hackers and scammers, by suspending or deleting
false accounts after identifying them with a combination of
machine learning and intelligence agency-level analysis.
The new efforts build on the company’s recently expanded
campaigns to identify fake news and crack down on automated
profile pages that post commercial or political spam. Facebook
suspended 30,000 accounts in France ahead of last Sunday’s
first-round presidential election.
In addressing the U.S. presidential election as a “case
study,” the Facebook team said fake Facebook personas had spread
stolen emails and other documents as part of a coordinated
effort, which U.S. intelligence agencies have attributed to
Russia. Other false personas pushed stories that expanded on
“From there, organic proliferation of the messaging and data
through authentic peer groups and networks was inevitable,”
Facebook said. It said its data “does not contradict” the U.S.
director of national intelligence's conclusion that Russia was
behind efforts to interfere with the U.S. election. The report
does not name any other countries.
Facebook has faced pressure to clamp down on fake news, and
has begun warning about suspected hoax stories. In its latest
report, Facebook focused on how it will fight “false
amplification” and targeted data collection, carried out through
methods such as imposter accounts and password-collection
Facebook employees said the information operations it had
seen included techniques such as carefully crafted friend
requests sent under the appropriated names of real people. If
those requests are accepted, the false friends can glean more
information about the target.
That information in turn can be used to send convincing web
links leading to malicious software or to map the social
networks of the targets for further spying.
Facebook said it would go after amplifier accounts based on
behavioral analysis that shows signs of inauthenticity, such as
sudden bursts of activity or repeated posting of the same
material, without regard to the politics of the content.
Facebook said that other amplification techniques it had
discovered include coordinated “likes” to boost the prominence
of key postings, the creation of groups that camouflage
propaganda by including legitimate items, and the spread of
inflammatory and racist material.
Most of the false amplification is driven by people with
local language skills and a basic knowledge of the relevant
political situation, the study said.
Though the goals may often be to promote one cause or
candidate or to denigrate another, another objective appears to
be sowing distrust and confusion in general, the authors wrote.
In some cases, they said, the same fake accounts engaged
with both sides of an issue "with the apparent intent of
increasing tensions between supporters."
Facebook's new crackdown reflects a striking change in
perspective from November, when Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg
dismissed the argument that fake stories on Facebook could have
influenced the U.S. presidential election “in any way” as “a
pretty crazy idea.”
(Reporting by Joseph Menn; Editing by Bill Rigby and Grant