Facebook has identified a coordinated influence campaign on U.S. politics ahead of November's midterm elections, banning more than two dozen pages and accounts as it attempts to learn more about the activity.
Facebook said it removed 32 Instagram and Facebook pages and accounts "because they were involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior." The social media giant found some connections between the accounts it removed and the accounts connected to Russia's Internet Research Agency that it removed before and after the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
"We're still in the very early stages of our investigation and don't have all the facts — including who may be behind this. But we are sharing what we know today given the connection between these bad actors and protests that are planned in Washington next week," Facebook said.
That August event was a mid-August protest that enlisted real people in opposition to a "Unite the Right" event marking a year since another event with the same name erupted in bloodshed in Charlottesville, Virginia.
More than 2,500 people were interested in next month's event, which was being co-hosted by five "legitimate" pages and one page with an administrator found to be inauthentic, called "Resisters." Facebook deactivated the event.
The New York Times reported, citing officials briefed on the matter, that Facebook has been working with the FBI and has not been able to associate the accounts with Russia, though it's possible Russia was involved.
The earliest page was created in March 2017. Facebook says more than 290,000 accounts followed at least one of the fake pages. The most followed Facebook Pages were "Aztlan Warriors," ''Black Elevation," ''Mindful Being," and "Resisters."
Facebook says the pages ran about 150 ads for $11,000 on Facebook and Instagram, paid for in U.S. and Canadian dollars. The first ad was created in April 2017; the last was created in June 2018.
Facebook said the people behind the accounts went to greater lengths to hide their identities than did the Internet Research Agency, which has been indicted in special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into 2016 election interference. Additionally, 12 Russians were indicted in the hack of Democratic emails during the 2016 election.
U.S. intelligence officials have called election interference a top concern. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, said he and others on the Senate Judiciary Committee had spoken to members of Facebook, Google and others about the threat of suspicious activity meant to divide the country.
He plans to introduce "the sanctions bill from hell" to deter election interference from Russia or any other country trying to meddle.
National Intelligence Director Dan Coats warned earlier this month that that warning lights about overall cyber-threats to the U.S. are "blinking red" — much like "blinking red" signals warned before 9/11 that a terror attack was imminent.
Coats said that while the U.S. is not seeing the kind of Russian electoral interference that occurred in 2016, digital attempts to undermine America are not coming only from Russia. They're occurring daily, he said, and are "much bigger than just elections."
Last week, President Donald Trump chaired a National Security Council meeting on how the administration is safeguarding the upcoming elections.
"The President has made it clear that his Administration will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections from any nation state or other malicious actors," the White House said in a statement Friday.
This month, The Associated Press reported that an array of bots, trolls and sites like USAReally appear to be testing the waters for further involvement in U.S. elections.
USAReally was launched in May by the Federal News Agency, part of an empire allegedly run by Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin that includes the Internet Research Agency - the "troll factory" whose members were indicted by U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller this year. The editor of the site said it's not about influencing the midterm election.
Facebook's revelation comes the same day that the Department of Homeland Security announced the creation of the National Risk Management Center to guard energy companies, banks and other industries against cyberattacks.
The center will be a collaborative effort between private businesses and government on how to identify potential threats and guard against them, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said.