Information operations as a strategy to distort public perception is not a new phenomenon. It has been used as a tool of domestic governance and foreign influence by leaders tracing back to the ancient Roman, Persian, and Chinese empires, and is among several approaches that countries adopt to bridge capability gaps amid global competition. Some authors use the term 'asymmetric' to refer to the advantage that a country can gain over a more powerful foe by making use of nonconventional strategies like information operations. While much of the current reporting and public debate focuses on information operations at the international level, similar tactics are also frequently used in domestic contexts to undermine opponents, civic or social causes, or their champions.
While information operations have a long history, social media platforms can serve as a new tool of collection and dissemination for these activities. Through the adept use of social media, information operators may attempt to distort public discourse, recruit supporters and financiers, or affect political or military outcomes. These activities can sometimes be accomplished without significant cost or risk to their organizers. We see a few drivers in particular for this behavior:
- Access - global reach is now possible: Leaders and thinkers, for the first time in history, can reach (and potentially influence) a global audience through new media, such as Facebook. While there are many benefits to this increased access, it also creates opportunities for malicious actors to reach a global audience with information operations.
- Everyone is a potential amplifier: Perhaps most critically, each person in a social mediaenabled world can act as a voice for the political causes she or he most strongly believes in. This means that well-executed information operations have the potential to gain influence organically, through authentic channels and networks, even if they originate from inauthentic sources, such as fake accounts.
During the 2016 US Presidential election season, we responded to several situations that we assessed to fit the pattern of information operations. We have no evidence of any Facebook accounts being compromised as part of this activity, but, nonetheless, we detected and monitored these efforts in order to protect the authentic connections that define our platform.
One aspect of this included malicious actors leveraging conventional and social media to share information stolen from other sources, such as email accounts, with the intent of harming the reputation of specific political targets. These incidents employed a relatively straightforward yet deliberate series of actions:
- Private and/or proprietary information was accessed and stolen from systems and services (outside of Facebook);
- Dedicated sites hosting this data were registered;
- Fake personas were created on Facebook and elsewhere to point to and amplify awareness of this data;
- Social media accounts and pages were created to amplify news accounts of and direct people to the stolen data.
- From there, organic proliferation of the messaging and data through authentic peer groups and networks was inevitable.
Concurrently, a separate set of malicious actors engaged in false amplification using inauthentic Facebook accounts to push narratives and themes that reinforced or expanded on some of the topics exposed from stolen data. Facebook conducted research into overall civic engagement during this time on the platform, and determined that the reach of the content shared by false amplifiers was marginal compared to the overall volume of civic content shared during the US election.12
In short, while we acknowledge the ongoing challenge of monitoring and guarding against information operations, the reach of known operations during the US election of 2016 was statistically very small compared to overall engagement on political issues.
Facebook is not in a position to make definitive attribution to the actors sponsoring this activity. It is important to emphasize that this example case comprises only a subset of overall activities tracked and addressed by our organization during this time period; however our data does not contradict the attribution provided by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence in the report dated January 6, 2017.1312.To estimate magnitude, we compiled a cross functional team of engineers, analysts, and data scientists to examine posts that were classified as related to civic engagement between September and December 2016. We compared that data with data derived from the behavior of accounts we believe to be related to Information Operations. The reach of the content spread by these accounts was less than one-tenth of a percent of the total reach of civic content on Facebook.