For anyone hoping that foreign operations are no longer using social media to try to meddle in and influence debate and policy in the US and all over the world, Thursday should be a wakeup call.
Thursday afternoon (31st of January), Facebook announced the suspension of a network of accounts it said was engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behavior on Facebook and Instagram” that was “directed from Iran.”
Almost simultaneously, Twitter announced that it had suspended what it termed networks of accounts that it termed “foreign information operations” potentially connected to Iran, Venezuela and Russia.
Twitter said it was confident that the accounts it identified as linked to Russia had originated there, but could not say for sure whether they were run by the Internet Research Agency, the notorious Kremlin-linked troll group indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller last year.
The hundreds of Russia-linked accounts it suspended had together sent almost a million tweets, many relating to US politics, Twitter said. The accounts appear at the moment to have been significantly less influential than those allegedly run by the Internet Research Agency during the 2016 presidential campaign. But they had tried to weigh in on the 2018 midterm elections; the accounts tweeted more than 73,000 times about those elections, Twitter said.
Russian-linked trolls attempting to influence the US through social media have often played to both left and right, and that appears to be the case with this batch of accounts as well. However, there does appear to have been a concerted attempt using the accounts to push some right-wing hashtags. Twitter said that the accounts had sent almost 40,000 tweets with the hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo, another 40,000 tweets with the hashtag #MAGA, and 18,000 tweets using the hashtag #IslamIsTheProblem. It is not clear whether the accounts’ tweets had any significant impact on the hashtags’ popularity.
The #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag emerged in January 2018 when Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, the then chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, touted a document that alleged FBI surveillance abuses during the 2016 election.
Twitter also announced it removed a network of accounts run from Venezuela which “appear to be engaged in a state-backed influence campaign” targeting Venezuelan audiences on behalf of the country’s president. The company said it had also removed a network of accounts from Iran that were pretending to be US people or news outlets.
Facebook said it had taken down 783 pages, groups, and accounts that were run from Iran. The pages primarily aimed at the Middle East and South Asia, but also targeted the US, Facebook said in a blog post.