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Facebook identifies ongoing political influence campaign, bans 32 pages and accounts

ABC News(NEW YORK) -- Facebook announced on Tuesday that is has banned 32 pages and accounts it said were engaged in "coordinated inauthentic behavior," on the platform, but the company says it does not yet know who is behind the campaign.

"We’re still in the very early stages of our investigation and don’t have all the facts — including who may be behind this," Facebook said in a post on its website. "But we are sharing what we know today given the connection between these bad actors and protests that are planned in Washington next week. We will update this post with more details when we have them, or if the facts we have change."

In a call Tuesday with reporters, Facebook Chief Operating Officer (COO) Sheryl Sandberg and other top company officials confirmed the news, which comes fewer than 100 days out from a consequential U.S. midterm election.

Sandberg said Facebook does not yet know who is behind the campaign, but that the actors went to even "greater lengths to obscure their true identities," than the Russian and Internet Research Agency (IRA)-linked actors that spread misinformation on the platform before the 2016 presidential election.

"Security is an arms race and it's never done. We've made it harder for inauthentic actors to operate on Facebook. Yet we face determined well-funded adversaries who won't give up and who are constantly changing tactics," Sandberg said. "That means we need to continually improve as well."

In response to a question from ABC News' Rebecca Jarvis, Facebook officials did say there was one instance of a known IRA-linked account becoming a co-administrator of a page on the platform for "seven minutes," before it was discovered and then removed.

"There was only one known IRA account that was a co-admin on one of these pages and that was just for about 7 minutes, so it was a brief period of time," said Tom Reynolds, an official with Facebook's communications team.

Nathaniel Gleicher, the head of cybersecurity policy at Facebook, said that while the pages do share similarities with previous IRA-linked accounts, there are differences this time around in the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses used by the accounts in this most recent influence campaign.

"While IP addresses are easy to spoof, the IRA accounts were disabled last year sometimes use Russian IP address. We haven't seen those here," Gleicher said.

The accounts -- which Facebook said were created as early as March 2017 and May 2018, were first discovered two weeks ago.

According to Facebook officials more than 290,000 users on the site followed at least one of the pages involved in the "inauthentic behavior."

When asked if the campaign was specifically an attempt to influence the 2018 midterm elections, officials said they are not characterizing what exactly the political aim of the network was, but that they "expect to find activity focused on the midterms," given their proximity.

Gleicher detailed the campaign these actors were engaged in, including an instance in which the network tried to boost interest in an August 10-12 event called "No Unite the Right 2 - D.C.," billed as a counter-protest to a rally planned in the nation's capital by the same group that organized a protest that sparked violence in Charlottesville, Virginia last summer.

Gleicher said that the company disabled the event posting on Tuesday and notified 2,600 Facebook users that indicated interest in attending the event.

Facebook officials also said they detected activity from the network that mentioned the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency(ICE), and around the #AbolishICE movement that has grown in popularity in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in recent weeks.

"There were several mentions of ICE in the material that we took down today for coordinating inauthentic behavior and that includes one event that’s protesting ICE," said Reynolds. "We’d expected these types of coordinated actors to engage in popular social movements like that. But at this point, as I said, because we aren’t specifically attributing who was engaged—who the actor is here, that’s what we understand so far about the engagement with ICE."

The Ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff of California, said in a statement, "Today's announcement from Facebook demonstrates what we've long feared: that malicious foreign actors bearing the hallmarks of previously-identified Russian influence campaigns continue to abuse and weaponize social media platforms to influence the U.S. electorate."

Schiff added, "Facebook must continue proactively identifying these actors, notifying Congress and law enforcement, and taking necessary steps to remove the foreign influence content and to notify legitimate Facebook users who fell victim to the same covert tradecraft that the Russian Internet Research Agency deployed through the 2016 election."

The vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, similarly said in a statement that the announcement shows "further evidence that the Kremlin continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to sow division and spread disinformation, and I am glad that Facebook is taking some steps to pinpoint and address this activity."

When asked about Warner's assertion that the Kremlin is involved in the nefarious activity, Facebook made clear Tuesday that it is not accusing any group or country of being behind the network.

"In this situation, we have shared our technical details with law enforcement and we believe law enforcement and the intelligence community will have a lot more data upon which they can draw, and if they want to make an attribution decision that's up to them," Gleicher said.

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