Facebook Combats Coordinated Campaigns to Misinform the Public

Fraudsters spreading falsehood on social media are getting more sophisticated. Facebook Inc. says it's rising to the challenge.

The owner of the world's most used social network is taking aim at organizations that launch coordinated campaigns to sway political opinion and spread lies by way of fake accounts.

As Facebook's network grows and becomes a forum for political debate, some organizations have been taking advantage maliciously, including during the elections in the U.S. and France, the company said in a white paper posted Thursday by its top security executives. Facebook says it has a responsibility to act when users are being manipulated, through a new category of attack it calls ``information operations.''

``We've had to expand our security focus from traditional abusive behavior, such as account hacking, malware, spam and financial scams, to include more subtle and insidious forms of misuse,'' the company said, ``including attempts to manipulate civic discourse and deceive people.''

Organizations seeking to sway public opinion tailor their techniques to Facebook's requirement that people use real identities. Some of the bad actors create accounts using the names and photos of real people and then send friend requests to a person's actual network, the company said. Others are stealing passwords or personal information to take over authentic accounts.

The company says that many of these accounts are not fully automated, but coordinated by people who are dedicated to operating many of them at once. They synchronize their responses to content, such as through "likes" and other postings, often in many places at once. Sometimes the reactions are repetitive or constitute harassment. The people in charge of the accounts may use them to make Facebook groups where they can spread false information, manipulate photos and create inflammatory memes.

``Sometimes these pages include legitimate and unrelated content, ostensibly to deflect from their purpose,'' Facebook said.

As the actors become more sophisticated and human-like, Facebook is working to train its detection tools. Improvements to Facebook's system, for example, can help it identify a spike in content from a group of accounts, or if someone is repeatedly posting the same thing. Facebook said the improved tools helped it take down more than 30,000 accounts during the election in France this month.

Information operations took place during the U.S. presidential election, too, Facebook said. In some cases, people used fake accounts to amplify unspecified stolen data ``with the intent of harming the reputation of specific political targets," the company said, without elaborating.

Once fake accounts posted erroneous information, it was "inevitable" that legitimate people continued to spread the message through their own networks. Still, Facebook says the impact was statistically small.

``The reach of the content shared by false amplifiers was marginal compared to the overall volume of civic content shared during the U.S. election,'' the company said.

Facebook determines whether an account is authentic based on activity, and not on the content of posts. As the company fights the spread of fake news on its platform, executives have said it wants to steer clear of being an arbiter of truth.

``Facebook sits at a critical juncture,'' the company said. ``Not everyone shares our vision, and some will seek to undermine it -- but we are in a position to help constructively shape the emerging information ecosystem by ensuring our platform remains a safe and secure environment for civic engagement.''

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