Russia’s disinformation campaign this time partly wanted to sow division among Democrats by driving readers to a fake left-leaning news site, PeaceData, which portrayed the Biden-Harris ticket as tools of conservatives, according to data revealed by Facebook.
Facebook announced that it identified the campaign by the Kremlin-backed Russian Internet Research Agency in August, after a tip by the FBI.
Russians set up a network of Facebook accounts and pages to drive traffic to PeaceData, which reportedly featured profiles of fake people made to look like the site’s editors who were used to recruit real writers for articles.
Though the report says the campaign was “largely unsuccessful” and failed to generate a significant following, more than 700 stories were published to PeaceData in English and Arabic since it was set up in February of this year, and Graphika, a social media analytics company hired by Facebook to independently investigate the campaign, warns the Russian agency used new techniques that could make it more difficult to identify interference going forward.
PeaceData on Tuesday evening denied its reported connection to the Russian Internet Research Agency as “slander” in an response posted to its website, adding: “We’re convinced that corporate media and their puppet masters want to destroy our journalism and shut us up forever for speaking truth about them … Don’t believe a single word from them.”
Facebook said it used technical indicators to link this campaign with the Russian Internet Research Agency and has shared all known information with the FBI.
The pages and accounts have since been shut down but Facebook says it expects “to see more attempts like this from threat actors globally.”
Graphika reported that “the English-language content on Biden and Harris was noteworthy for its hostile tone,” and that one “guest writer accused the pair of ‘submission to right-wing populism […] as much about preserving careers as it is winning votes.’” Another accused him of “apparent prejudice against Palestinians … [and] general racism.”
WHAT TO WATCH
The Graphika report identifies three new worrisome disinformation strategies that could be used again in the future: the use of artificial intelligence to generate fake profiles, the use of real authors to add credibility to a fake news site, and the targeting of specific communities.
The August campaign appears to be the first publicly known attempt at Russian meddling ahead of the 2020 election, though lawmakers and intelligence officials have long-warned that outside interference could become a problem again this year. Special counsel Bob Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in 2016 found that by the end of the election, the Russian Internet Research Agency was able to reach millions through their social media accounts, and multiple agency-controlled Facebook groups and Instagram accounts had hundreds of thousands of U.S. participants.
126 million. The number of people Facebook estimated the Russian Internet Research Agency was able to reach through its platform during the last election. Twitter announced separately that 1.4 million people may have come into contact with similarly controlled accounts.
“August 2020 Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior Report” (Facebook)
“IRA Again: Unlucky Thirteen” (Graphika)
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