Facebook announced in July that it had removed 32 accounts, pages, and groups from its social media platform and Instagram for attempting to influence the U.S. midterm elections. Apparently that wasn't enough to dissuade whoever is behind the efforts: the company announced on August 21 that the number of removed accounts rose to 652 after FireEye researchers discovered an "influence operation" on the platforms.
FireEye said the operation targeted people in the UK, Latin America, and the Middle East as well as the U.S. The company loosely attributed this operation to Iran--it assessed "with moderate confidence that this activity originates from Iranian actors"--and said it was used to "promote political narratives in line with Iranian interests." But attributing these operations is finicky, so FireEye was careful not to definitively blame Iran.
Facebook was more certain about the culprit, as was Twitter when it announced that it too had suspended 248 accounts for "engaging in coordinated manipulation." Facebook's head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, said in an update to the July blog post:
"We are able to link this network to Iranian state media through publicly available website registration information, as well as the use of related IP addresses and Facebook Pages sharing the same admins. For example, one part of the network, 'Quest 4 Truth,' claims to be an independent Iranian media organization, but is in fact linked to Press TV, an English-language news network affiliated with Iranian state media."
Both companies said there doesn't appear to be a connection between Iran's operation and Russia's efforts to influence foreign politics via social media platforms. Instead, both countries have apparently decided that covertly manipulating foreign policies via tools like Facebook and Instagram is the best way to realize their political goals, and there's no telling how many other governments will end up duplicating these tactics.
But not finding a connection between this operation and Russia doesn't mean Facebook hasn't been busy with Putin & Co. Gleicher said:
"Finally, we’ve removed Pages, groups and accounts that can be linked to sources the US government has previously identified as Russian military intelligence services. This is unrelated to the activities we found in Iran. While these are some of the same bad actors we removed for cybersecurity attacks before the 2016 US election, this more recent activity focused on politics in Syria and Ukraine."
Facebook and FireEye made their revelations shortly after Microsoft announced that it had disrupted a Russia-linked hacking group's efforts to influence Republicans by spoofing the websites of popular think tanks and the U.S. Senate. Don't be surprised to hear more about these attempts to meddle with foreign politics between now and November--or in perpetuity. This is fast starting to seem like it's going to be the new "normal."