Perhaps the most jarring aspect of Facebook’s report on the “influence campaign” is the fact that the alleged “bad actor” pages were not even necessarily identified by Facebook itself, as Facebook notes that it had ample help from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
MENLO PARK, CALIFORNIA — This past Tuesday, major U.S. news outlets were abuzz over a recent Facebook announcement regarding an “influence campaign” carried out by “bad actor” accounts on its platform in the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections in November. Facebook stated that it was still unknown who was to blame for the campaign, which was allegedly carried out via eight Facebook pages, 17 Facebook profiles and seven Instagram accounts. However, subsequent media reports on the announcement have claimed that the Russian government appears to have been responsible.
Reactions from major U.S. politicians were immediate and U.S. media coverage of the reporting was widespread. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, stated that: “Today’s disclosure is further evidence that the Kremlin continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to sow division and spread disinformation.”
Republican Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) echoed Warner and praised Facebook for taking the “much-needed step toward limiting the use of their platform by foreign influence campaigns,” adding that “[t]he goal of these operations is to sow discord, distrust and division. The Russians want a weak America.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) also made similar statements, asserting:
Today’s announcement from Facebook demonstrates what we’ve long feared: that malicious foreign actors bearing the hallmarks of previously-identified Russian influence campaigns continue to abuse and weaponize social media platforms to influence the U.S. electorate.”
Yet, despite the lawmakers’ claims, Facebook has established no links to the Russian government or even Russian nationals. The only “evidence” to back up the claim of Russian-involvement is that one of the pages identified “had an IRA [Internet Research Agency, a Russian “troll farm” named in a Mueller-probe indictment] account as one of its admins for only seven minutes” and “one of the IRA accounts we disabled in 2017 shared a Facebook Event hosted by” one of the pages.
Facebook also stated that the pages had spent a combined $11,000 on 150 ads and had been more “careful to cover their tracks” than previously identified “influence campaigns.” This figure, out of context, may seem large. However, the “Russian meddling” identified by Facebook and involving the IRA allegedly spent nearly ten times that sum. Furthermore, that $11,000 is a meager sum when compared to Facebook’s annual revenue of over $40 billion.
Many “hooks,” very few fish
Beyond the fact that accusations of Russian involvement are highly politicized given the lack of current evidence, there is hardly any indication that this “influence campaign” was even influential at all. Indeed, most of the “bad actor” pages and accounts had hardly any followers, with most of them having no followers.
For instance, only four of the 32 total social-media pages and accounts had more than 10 followers, with all other pages — i.e., the remaining 28 — having between 10 and zero, according to Facebook’s statements. All of the Instagram accounts identified had zero followers and, among those seven accounts, only one of them had made a single post on the platform. By Facebook’s own admission, only four of the pages named were even remotely significant in terms of followers and thus “influence.”
Though clearly stated on the Facebook press release on the matter, this fact was largely absent from media coverage of the “influence campaign,” which mentioned only the number of followers of the page with the highest number of followers, which had a following of approximately 290,000. Beyond that, there is no information on how these pages allegedly tried to “influence” their followers beyond claims made by The New York Times and others that they “sought to amplify divisive social issues” by creating “real life” events and through posting content.
The main event cited in the report, the “No Unite the Right 2 — DC” rally, actually did not even originate with one of the named pages at all. That rally — planned to counter an anticipated right-wing rally in Washington on Aug. 11 and 12 by the same group that organized the now infamous Charlottesville march last year — had been organized months before the alleged page behind it was even created.
One of the organizers of that rally — Chelsea Manning, of WikiLeaks fame — told The New York Times not only that the rally was “real and organic,” but that she and other organizers had “started organizing several months ago. Folks from D.C. and Charlottesville have been talking about this since at least February.” Manning further asserted that Facebook’s implication that the “influence campaign” page called “Resisters” had started the event was misleading. Facebook has since deleted the events page but organizers like Manning have created a new one to replace it.
Facebook’s war-hawk partner, the Atlantic Council
Yet, perhaps the most jarring aspect of Facebook’s report on the “influence campaign” is the fact that the alleged “bad actor” pages were not even necessarily identified by Facebook itself, as Facebook notes that it had ample help from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab). As MintPress has previously reported, Facebook officially partnered with the Atlantic Council this past May in order to tackle so-called “fake news,” adding that the hawkish think-tank would serve as its “eyes and ears” in identifying alleged foreign-influence operations.
MENLO PARK, CALIFORNIA – Facebook is hoping that a new alliance with the Atlantic Council – a leading geopolitical strategy think-tank seen as a de facto PR agency for the U.S. government and NATO military alliance – will not only solve its “fake news” and “disinformation” controversy, but will also help the social media monolith play “a positive role” in ensuring democracy on a global level.
As MintPress’ Elliott Gabriel noted at the time, DFRLab’s most notable employees include pro-war media activist Eliot Higgins (of Bellingcat fame) and Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow for information defense at the Atlantic Council who earned infamy for making baseless accusations that actual Twitter users were “Russian trolls.”
Furthermore, the Atlantic Council itself is led by a mix of retired military officers, former politicians, and Western business elites. And the think-tank’s financial sponsors include top U.S. defense contractors; agencies aligned with Washington and the Pentagon; the United Arab Emirates; major transnational corporations; and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). One can think of several reasons why such a group would be interested in fomenting anti-Russian hysteria prior to the 2018 elections and beyond — one obvious one being the fact that the NATO-promoted “Russian threat” is great for business.
The Atlantic Council’s conflicts of interest are certainly worth keeping in mind given that its DFRLab will be responsible for analyzing and releasing a report on those “bad actor” pages and accounts recently identified by Facebook, a report due to be issued in the coming weeks.
Top Photo | Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House Energy and Commerce hearing on Capitol Hill April 11, 2018, about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election and data privacy. Andrew Harnik | AP
Whitney Webb is a staff writer for MintPress News and a contributor to Ben Swann’s Truth in Media. Her work has appeared on Global Research, the Ron Paul Institute and 21st Century Wire, among others. She has also made radio and TV appearances on RT and Sputnik. She currently lives with her family in southern Chile.