US a top target for foreign and domestic influence operations: New Facebook report
'Working on laptop' [Shutterstock]

By Elizabeth Culliford

(Reuters) - The United States topped a list of the countries most frequently targeted by deceptive foreign influence operations using Facebook between 2017 and 2020, the social media company said in a new report released on Wednesday.

It also came second on a list of countries targeted by domestic influence operations in that same time period. Facebook Inc said one of the top sources of coordinated inauthentic behavior networks targeting the United States in the year leading up to the 2020 presidential election was domestic campaigns originating in the United States itself, as well as foreign operations from Russia and Iran.

The tallies were based on the number of "coordinated inauthentic behavior" networks removed by Facebook, a term it uses for a type of influence operations that relies on fake accounts to mislead users and manipulate the public debate for strategic ends.

Facebook began cracking down on these influence operations after 2016, when U.S. intelligence concluded that Russia used the platform as part of a cyber-influence campaign that aimed to help former President Donald Trump win the White House, a claim Moscow has denied.

The company said Russia, followed by Iran, topped the list for sources of coordinated inauthentic behavior and that this was mostly rooted in foreign interference. Top targets of foreign operations included Ukraine, the United Kingdom, Libya and Sudan.

But the company also said that about half of the influence operations it has removed since 2017 around the world were conducted by domestic, not foreign, networks.

"IO [influence operations] really started out as an elite sport. We had a small group of nation states in particular that were using these techniques. But more and more we're seeing more people getting into the game," Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook's head of security policy, told reporters on a conference call.

Facebook said the domestic influence operations that targeted the United States were operated by conspiratorial or fringe political actors, PR or consulting firms and media websites.

Myanmar was the country targeted by the most domestic inauthentic networks, according to Facebook's count, though these networks were relatively small in size.

Gleicher said threat actors had pivoted from large, high-volume campaigns to smaller and more targeted ones, and that the platform was also seeing a rise in commercial influence operations.

"I actually think the majority of what we're seeing here, these aren't actors that are motivated by politics. In terms of volume, a lot of this is actors that are motivated by money," he said. "They're scammers, they're fraudsters, they're PR or marketing firms that are looking to make a business around deception."

Facebook investigators also said they expected it would get harder to discern what was part of a deceptive influence campaign as threat actors increasingly use "witting and unwitting people to blur the lines between authentic domestic discourse and manipulation."

The report included more than 150 coordinated inauthentic networks identified and removed by Facebook since 2017.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Culliford in New York; Editing by Matthew Lewis)