AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Facebook gave us fresh evidence today that other countries are still trying to interfere in U.S. politics. It announced that it had shut down several accounts and pages that it says were being used to stoke divisions among Americans. Facebook is not saying who was behind the effort, but signs point back to Russia and the same troll farm that was so active ahead of the 2016 election.
NPR's Tim Mak is here with more on the story. Hey, Tim.
TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey.
CHANG: So what details did Facebook reveal today about these ongoing efforts to disrupt U.S. politics?
MAK: So it said it had disrupted a campaign that involved 32 accounts, Facebook and Instagram accounts that were created between March 2017 and May of this year. And this campaign included an effort to organize counterprotests for a planned white nationalist rally that's happening in Washington, D.C., in a couple of weeks. They used this fake account to reach out to genuine American grass-roots Facebook pages to kind of help organize logistics and build legitimacy and build interest in these counterprotests.
CHANG: And what sort of impact did this campaign have?
MAK: So it's kind of misleading - right? - to think, oh, it's only 32 accounts.
MAK: But the impact is magnitudes larger. So over the last 15 months or so, they managed to attract a total 290,000 followers.
MAK: And they made 9,500 posts. They ran 150 advertisements. And they even organized 30 events. And although Facebook, you know, doesn't track this in the real world - they couldn't vouch for whether the events occurred - people definitely signed up for them.
CHANG: So tell us a little bit about who might be behind this. Did Facebook offer any information on that?
MAK: So they said they weren't able to definitively say who was behind the influence campaign. And they just - they didn't want to be totally conclusive about it. But here's what they did say. They said the campaign involved similar tools, techniques and procedures that were used by the Russian Internet Research Agency during the 2016 campaign. So it follows a same kind of flow. And they also had another kind of tantalizing piece of evidence. For seven minutes, a known Russian Internet Research Agency account was made a co-administrator of one of the fake pages involved in this campaign.
CHANG: OK, so Facebook made this announcement today. It's clearly trying to show it's being proactive about this. But is there any evidence that social media companies are getting any better at stopping this kind of political interference on their platforms?
MAK: You know, Facebook has said they're going to continue to investigate it. And they expect to find more evidence for meddling directly related to the 2018 midterms. We've been warned about this over and over again by lawmakers, by Trump administration officials. Russia isn't done meddling in the American democratic process. We haven't known exactly what form that would take...
MAK: ...But today we learned a little bit in this campaign. And there are other investigations ongoing. But one thing that's really gotten challenging is that this round of political interference has gotten more sophisticated. If it is Kremlin-linked, the Internet Research Agency or whoever was behind this, they're leaving fewer clues. And it's becoming harder for Facebook to track it down.
In the past, the Internet Research Agency occasionally slipped up and they used a Russian IP address, which gives us some clues for the origin of the campaign. But there's no sign of that here. And these actors, they used virtual private networks to mask their identity and third parties to place their - to kind of hide what was going on behind the scenes.
So as their methods get more sophisticated, Facebook will have to get more sophisticated in finding out ways to track it and to stop it. Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, even went so far as to say that this was a arms race.
CHANG: Did they talk about what sophisticated methods they will be using to try to stop future efforts like this?
MAK: They were kind of a little shy in saying exactly how they might track down future efforts because that would give bad actors a way to kind of bypass whatever methods that they're trying to use. But it does involve AI. It does involve pretty sophisticated methods, they say.
CHANG: All right, that's NPR's Tim Mak. Thank you.
MAK: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.