Facebook has identified and banned hundreds of accounts, groups and pages involved in misleading political behavior, a far greater discovery than a "sophisticated" effort it reported three weeks ago with great fanfare.
The social network said Tuesday that it had removed 652 pages, groups and accounts linked to Russia and, unexpectedly, Iran, for "coordinated authentic behavior" that included the sharing of political material.
Facebook has significantly strengthened the platform's policing since last year, when it recognized that Russian agents successfully ruled political influence operations on the platform aimed at sweeping the 2016 presidential election. Other social media have done the same, and continue to show new evidence of political disinformation campaigns.
Facebook's action in late July against 32 accounts possibly associated with Russia, generally involved US political activity before mid-November elections. On the other hand, the last group of apparently false accounts showed more influence on US foreign policy and regional policy in the Middle East.
Soon after Facebook's announcement, Twitter revealed that it had also suspended 284 accounts for "coordinated manipulation", many of which apparently originate from Iran. One day earlier, Microsoft also reported a new Russian effort to emulate conservative American sites, potentially as part of a spying campaign.
The social network said that it had not entered its review of the material and refused to say how or why the state-backed actors behaved like they did. However, it said that it has informed the US and British authorities, as well as US treasury and government departments due to ongoing sanctions against Iran.
"There is a lot we do not know yet," said Mark Zuckerberg, managing director, conference call with journalists on Tuesday afternoon.
"You'll see people try to abuse the services in every possible way … including now a national country," he said. He described fraud campaigns as "sophisticated and well-functioning efforts that will not stop."
FireEye, a security company that alerted Facebook to some of this activity, noted that it "does not seem to have been specifically designed to affect 201
Facebook said that the last action on Tuesday morning resulted in four surveys – three involved Iran, one with Russia.
The first focused on a group called "Liberty Front Press" which set up several accounts on Facebook and Instagram, followed by 155,000 other accounts. The group was linked to Iranian government media based on website registrations, IP addresses and admin accounts, Facebook said. The first accounts were created in 2013 and published political content about the Middle East, the United Kingdom and the United States, although the focus on the West increased from last year, Facebook said.
"The Iranians now follow the Kremlin playbook," said Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, top democrat at Senate Intelligence Committee. On September 5, Facebook, Google and Twitter leaders are scheduled to testify before the Notification Committee about their efforts to fight political disinformation about their social media.
FourEye called the Liberty Front Press Group an influence operation apparently aimed at promoting Iran's political interests, "including anti-Saudi, anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian themes" and supporting the nuclear war between the United States and Iran.
President Donald Trump pulled the US back from the agreement earlier this year.
While the group did not seem to attempt to affect the American midterm, FireEye said the analysis "does not exclude such attempts being made". Several social media personas found it related to the Masqueraded group as Liberal American activists who backed Bernie Sanders. A person also used the Twitter handle "@berniecratss" and recorded his position as the United States, even though the phone number associated with it began with Iran's country code, +98.
The group's activity included "significant anti-Trump messaging," but FireEye said in a detailed report, "Activity extends far beyond US audience and US politics."
The other group also had more accounts and 15,000 followers. The group was attached to the "Liberty Front Press" and attempted to cut people's accounts to spread malware. Facebook said it interfered with these attempts.
A third group operated by Iran had as many as 813,000 followers and also shared political content about the Middle East, the United Kingdom and the United States
In all the Iranian-linked groups, some $ 12,000 spent in advertising and hosted 28 different events.
A fourth group attempting to influence politics in Syria and Ukraine was linked to sources as Facebook said that the United States had associated with Russian military intelligence.
"We are working closely with US law enforcement on this survey," Facebook said in a blog post.
At the end of July, Facebook also removed 32 apparently fake accounts on Facebook and Instagram which together had nearly 300,000 followers, including thousands who expressed interest in events they promoted.