Last week Facebook said it removed dozens of inauthentic accounts and pages that sought to boost the reelection campaign of Julián Zacarías, the current mayor of the Mexican city of Progreso, and denigrate his opponent, Lila Frías Castillo.
The campaign managed several pages and accounts that appeared to be independent local news organizations, when, in fact, they were linked with Sombrero Blanco, a public relations firm in Mexico, and Zacarías himself, according to Facebook’s investigation. The company ultimately conducted a takedown of 44 Facebook accounts, 11 Pages and one Instagram account, adding that the operation had minimal reach.
Government-sponsored disinformation campaign operators have long sought to hide their true identities by recruiting writers to publish articles for seemingly legitimate news organizations, or using manipulated photos to lend an air of authenticity to their fake accounts.
The National Security Agency and Cyber Command confirmed that the Internet Research Agency, a Russian government-backed troll farm that’s spent years trying to influence U.S. public opinion, outsourced the production of police brutality-themed content, for instance, to a non-governmental organization in Ghana in 2020. An Israeli lobbying firm was similarly peddling narratives via fake and misleading accounts in 2019 in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.
In recent months, though, Facbeook says it has seen an uptick in campaigns outsourcing operations to public relations firms and commercial entities to further distance operators from their influence campaigns. The effort in Mexico is only the latest example.
Less visible actors increasingly are amplifying polarizing content about local political issues, while often working for a benefactor, Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy, told reporters on May 6.
“We’ve seen a steady growth in PR campaigns and deceptive companies that are essentially trying to sell deception for hire, both domestically and around the world,” Gleicher said, adding that influence operations for hire is nothing new. “We have seen a growth in these types of operations, and one of the things we’ve seen more recently is if you think about domestic politics we’re seeing more and more efforts to hire or bring these PR firms in even for smaller races.”
In 2019 and 2020, for instance, a Tunisian company ran influence operations related to elections in Africa, and was later subject to a Facebook takedown. Multiple marketing companies in Brazil also engaged in influence operations spreading and amplifying content related to local elections in 2020.
Other examples of marketing firms or other private companies engaging in inauthentic behavior have cropped up in Egypt, Canada and the U.S. as well, according to the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Other examples in Mexico, the Philippines and Macedonia abound.
“Frankly for vast majority of people around the world that’s activity that has more impact on their day to day lives than what the amount of engagement that the Russians might be getting in X, Y or Z country,” Graham Brookie, director and managing editor of the the DFRLab, told CyberScoop.
What’s the cost of outsourcing lies?
As more operators focus on outsourcing disinformation on small-scale politics to private or non-governmental organizations, some researchers are concerned that it will become more difficult to track nefarious activity, says Brookie.
“It’s a pretty good point for why there needs to be a higher degree of resiliency across this entire space,” Brookie said.
Beyond tracking the rise in outsourced influence operations that DFRLab, Facebook and others are watching, Brookie says policymakers and researchers should be thinking about how to impose costs on operators so they avoid these kinds of campaigns in the first place.
Naming and shaming private sector entities for running disinformation-for-hire has been effective in some cases. Archimedes, the Israel-based lobbying firm that featured in a Facebook takedown in 2019, for instance, has not resurfaced running information operations under the same or under a different name to date, as far as Brookie knows.
”Archimedes doesn’t exist anymore because they were labeled a disinformation-for-hire — that’s a pretty specific market cost that I don’t think a policymaker could apply to Archimedes,” Brookie said, adding that he and DFRLab haven’t heard from Archimedes since the firm issued the researchers a cease and desist order for publishing on their activities. “I think, frankly, they sent a cease and desist order to us and then evaporated off the face of the planet.”
Alicia Wanless, the director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Partnership for Countering Influence Operations, told CyberScoop she thinks that more needs to be done to impose costs on those hiring PR firms to do their bidding.
“Are the people who hired them really being exposed? Are [they] feeling the shame of using it or is that just disappearing after the coverage dies down?” Wanless said. “There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of consequences fo engaging in it.”
Brookie suggested that research teams could be doing a better job explicitly identifying which governments, politicians or entities are backing these campaigns to better tamp down on their activities.
“We need better definitions for being very specific about which type of actor is hiring this inauthentic engagement online,” Brookie said. “Maybe we need new terms or maybe we need to be very very specific much like any other attribution — who we’re talking about and what our level of confidence is.”