Facebook Says Russian Trolls Hired U.S. Journalists To Push News Website

Facebook has deleted the accounts tied to a news site that was created by a group of Russian trolls who were linked to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), which waged a misinformation campaign on social media during the 2016 presidential election. Facebook said the site, called Peace Data, was created this year and featured content created by U.S. journalists who were hired by the trolls. Facebook learned about the origins of Peace Data from a tip from the FBI.

"It confirms what I think we've all thought: Russian actors are trying to target the 2020 elections and public debate in the U.S., and they're trying to be creative about it," Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook's Head of Cybersecurity Policy said.

Gleicher added that the social media company's actions are proof that foreign actors who are trying to hijack political discourse are failing.

"But the second thing that it confirms is, it's not really working," he said. "You can run a loud, noisy influence campaign like the one we saw in 2016, and you get caught very quickly. Or you can try to run a much more subtle campaign, which is what this looks like. And A, you still get caught, and B, when you run a subtle influence campaign, you're sort of working at cross purposes with yourself. You don't get a lot of attention for it."

The news site was attempting to target left-leaning voters and sow dissent among them.

"This looks like an early-stage attempt to target left-wing audiences on a range of issues," Ben Nimmo, head of investigations at Graphika, a social media analytics company commissioned by Facebook to study the influence operation, told CNN. "The [U.S.] election wasn't the only focus, but it looks like the operation wanted to divide Democratic voters, the same way the IRA tried in 2016."

The social media campaign did not gain much traction before it was shut down. The trolls posted dozens of stories on Facebook, but in total, the articles were shared less than 200 times. The group had 13 accounts and two pages, which Facebook deactivated for misleading users about their identity and purpose.

It is unclear if the journalists knew they were hired by Russian trolls. The group used the freelance networking website Guru to recruit writers but did not mention their ties to the Russian government.

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