SAN FRANCISCO • Facebook said it has identified a new coordinated political influence campaign to mislead its users and sow dissension among voters ahead of the United States congressional elections in November.
It said on Tuesday that it had removed 32 pages and accounts from Facebook and Instagram, part of an effort to combat foreign meddling in US elections.
The company stopped short of identifying the source of the misinformation. But members of Congress who had been briefed by Facebook on the matter said the methodology of the influence campaign suggested Russian involvement. "I can say... with pretty high confidence, I think this is Russian-related," Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters at the US Capitol.
However, two US intelligence officials told Reuters there was in-sufficient evidence to conclude that Russia was behind the Facebook campaign, although one of them noted that "the similarities, aims and methodology relative to the 2016 Russian campaign are quite striking".
A Russian propaganda arm tried to tamper with the 2016 US presidential election by posting and buying ads on Facebook, according to the company and US intelligence agencies.
In February, the US Justice Department indicted 13 Russian nationals and the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency for interfering in the 2016 election.
Moscow has denied involvement.
Facebook has been on the defensive about influence activity on its site and concerns over user privacy tied to longstanding agreements with developers that allowed them access to private user data.
US think-tank Atlantic Council's Digital Forensics Research Lab, which was shown the suspended pages ahead of the takedown, said they showed similarities in language and approach to previous fake accounts from the Internet Research Agency, which is known as the "troll factory" because it stirs up public opinion on social media sites.
The lab cited "consistent mistranslation as well as an overwhelming focus on polarising issues at the top of any given news cycle".
It said, for example, that posts on the year-old feminist Resisters page "took a liberal or left-wing stance on issues around gender, race, immigration and human rights". Other pages promoted racial pride among minority groups.
The group said the Resisters page was alarming because it was pushing for confrontation at mul-tiple protests, with a potential for violence. They included the "Unite the Right 2" rally set for next week in Washington.
A man who identified himself as an administrator of Resisters, Washington activist Brendan Orsinger, said on a video call with Reuters that he had been invited to help operate the page by someone he knew only through Facebook messages.
"I definitely had concerns because people don't usually invite me to accounts unless they know me," Mr Orsinger said. "But at the same time, this was an account we could use." He said that more than a dozen legitimate activist groups were still supporting the counter-rally, and would now have to work harder to reconnect with people who had been following it through the Resisters page.
Ms Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, said on a call with reporters that the attempts to manipulate public opinion would likely become more sophisticated to evade Facebook's scrutiny, calling it an "arms race".
Facebook said previously that 126 million Americans may have seen Russian-backed political content on the social networking site over a two-year period, and that 16 million may have been exposed to Russian information on Instagram.
The White House said the administration was supportive of Facebook's actions. "We applaud efforts by our private-sector partners to combat an array of threats that occur in cyberspace, including malign influence," said Mr Garrett Marquis, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
US President Donald Trump had come under fire previously for discounting the threat of interference in the congressional elections. He later said that he was "very concerned" about Russian interference in the elections.