Europe Worries as Facebook Fights Manipulation Worldwide
LONDON — The picture was just like many of the other Facebook posts criticizing Britain’s decision to leave the European Union: a fake commemorative stamp showing a person preparing to shoot himself in the foot.
But on Tuesday, Facebook revealed that the unremarkable post was anything but. It originated from an Iranian-backed group aimed at Britain, in what the company said was the first known instance of a foreign influence campaign aimed at people outside the United States.
Facebook has spent the past two years trying to block foreign propaganda in the United States. But its disclosure of hundreds of fake accounts and pages, including the one tied to the Iranian-backed group, revealed that the foreign manipulation of elections through Facebook extends across the globe. Tactics used by Russia-linked groups ahead of the 2016 presidential election are being applied in Britain, the Middle East and Latin America.
Europe, where Facebook has more users than in the United States, is particularly worried. The company’s announcement exacerbated concerns that the region will be a regular target of foreign propaganda efforts — including ahead of next year’s European Parliament elections, which will help set the policy direction in Brussels for the next five years.
The discovery immediately added momentum in Europe to pass new laws to clamp down on social media platforms, including rules to remove terrorist content and to restrict how voters are targeted with political messages online. Vera Jourova, a European commissioner who has been involved in writing new election regulations for the entire region, said, “We need to do more to protect our elections and tackle the online challenges to elections head on.”
In a statement, Ms. Jourova promised election rules would be introduced in the next few months, ahead of the European Parliament elections in May.
“Facebook can be used for evil, that’s a fact,” said Claude Moraes, a British member of the European Parliament who leads a panel that has been investigating Facebook’s role in elections. “Facebook can be used to manipulate elections, that’s a fact.”
Russia has long viewed the European Union as an adversary, and influencing the parliamentary campaigns is a way to diminish its clout, said Mr. Moraes, who organized a recent series of hearings that featured testimony from Facebook executives.
“I have no doubt that Facebook will be a critical component” of Russia’s efforts to undermine the European Union, he said.
Facebook said on Tuesday it had removed the 652 fake accounts, pages and groups. The posts from those accounts played up emotional political issues, including immigration, the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.
Facebook shared only a limited number of examples of suspended posts, many of which were the kinds of internet memes that are common in newsfeeds on the platform, using humor to play on controversial political topics.
But unlike those targeted at Americans, the posts made public on Tuesday have a more international bent, including some written in Arabic and Farsi. And in identifying Iran for the first time, Facebook acknowledged that countries other than Russia, which the company said was also behind some of the newly uncovered accounts, are now trying to manipulate its platform to intensify political divisions abroad.
“The real concern here is this new evidence suggests that other regimes are learning from what Russia achieved,” said Philip Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, a department at Oxford University studying the use of social media to spread misinformation. “The Iranian government saw what impact Russia had with its communications campaign and they are sinking resources into this as well.”
Over all, the posts show an attempt to exacerbate divisions that already exist. One featured a cartoon supporting Boris Johnson, a former member of Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet, to replace her as prime minister, while another backed Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party. (A spokesman for Mr. Corbyn declined to comment.)
While the reaction in Britain was immediate and vocal, officials in the Middle East and Latin America, where similar propaganda efforts were made, were initially silent.
In the Middle East, Facebook is a key source of news and is frequently used as a platform for political discussions, but citizens are also more accustomed to navigating state-backed propaganda, potentially muting the impact of information campaigns in the region.
Facebook’s announcement made few waves in Israel or the Palestinian territories, where the social media system is already filled with nationalistic and political messaging. Some even downplayed the significance of the company’s moves, describing it as possibly part of an in-house public relations exercise.
“Facebook removes suspicious accounts all the time,” said Gabi Siboni, director of the cyber security program at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. He said Facebook was playing a “game of cat and mouse.” As the company changes its policies, or adjusts its algorithm, outside groups adapt.
Many of the posts deleted by Facebook supported pro-Iran causes, or attacked Israel and promoted the Palestinian territories. Others included language critical of President Trump.
David Balson, a former official at Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, the country’s equivalent of the National Security Agency, said Facebook’s global platform made it an enticing place for government-backed groups to influence public debate. In effect, it offered a cheap and fast way to spread a message.
“In the Cold War, you needed to set up radio stations or print newspapers,” said Mr. Balson, who is now director of intelligence at Ripjar, a data analytics company. “Now all you need is a laptop and a credit card.”
He said Facebook had to find more sustainable solutions to fighting misinformation than suspending accounts, and argued that many groups would continue their work, but under new names. Each new disclosure, Mr. Balson said, made him wonder what other campaigns were being waged on the social network.
“It’s just the tip of the iceberg of what’s out there,” he said.
Follow Adam Satariano on Twitter: @satariano.
Reporting was contributed by Irit Pazner Garshowitz from Jerusalem, Isabel Kershner from Tel Aviv, and Margaret Coker from Dubai.