Facebook said Monday it was tightening its security for the 2020 US elections, with stepped up scrutiny of “state controlled” media seeking to manipulate American voters.
The moves add to a series of measures from the leading social network since 2016, when foreign entities were prominently involved in social media in the US campaign.
“The bottom line here is that elections have changed significantly since 2016, and Facebook has changed too,” Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg told a conference call.
“We face increasingly sophisticated attacks from nation-states … but I’m confident we’re more prepared now.”
One of the new steps calls for labeling of messages coming from state-controlled media outlets, starting next month.
“We will hold these pages to a higher standard of transparency because they combine the opinion-making influence of a media organization with the strategic backing of a state,” a Facebook blog post said.
Facebook also said it would seek to curb the viral spread of misinformation by using a “pop-up” that will appear when people attempt to share posts on Instagram debunked by third-party fact-checkers.
“In addition to clearer labels, we’re also working to take faster action to prevent misinformation from going viral, especially given that quality reporting and fact-checking takes time,” Facebook said.
“In many countries, including in the US, if we have signals that a piece of content is false, we temporarily reduce its distribution pending review by a third-party fact-checker.”
Facebook said it was offering new protections against the accounts of political candidates, monitoring their accounts for hacking or hijacking. It also outlined steps to protect against “voter suppression” including any efforts to mislead people about where or when to vote.
In a related development, Facebook said it removed four separate networks of accounts from Russia and Iran for “coordinated inauthentic behavior” on Facebook and Instagram.
“All of these operations created networks of accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing,” said Facebook cybersecurity chief Nathaniel Gleicher.
Three of the groups originated in Iran and one in Russia, and they targeted users in the United States, North Africa and Latin America.
One of the Russian groups used posts with concealed identities to make comments “on both sides of political issues including topics like US elections, environmental issues, racial tensions, LGBTQ issues, political candidates, confederate ideas, conservatism and liberalism,” Facebook said.
An Iranian account which “masqueraded as a news entity” posted on topics including race relations, US and Israeli policy on Iran and the Black Lives Matter movement.
US President Donald Trump lashed out Thursday at Democrats for investigating his dealings with Russia, saying his opponents are “going nuts.”
“PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT! It should never be allowed to happen again!” Trump tweeted.
He said that an expansion of the probe by the intelligence committee in the Democrat-led House of Representatives was unprecedented.
Adam Schiff, the congressman heading the committee, said it will look into suspicions of collusion between Trump and Russia and also broader allegations of financial wrongdoing in Trump’s inner circle.
The powerful committee will be working in parallel with an already well-advanced probe by special prosecutor Robert Mueller into alleged links between Trump and Russian agents during his 2016 election campaign.
“Congressman Adam Schiff announces, after having found zero Russian Collusion, that he is going to be looking at every aspect of my life, both financial and personal, even though there is no reason to be doing so. Never happened before!” Trump tweeted.
Trump has repeatedly declared his innocence, claiming that the growing investigations, which also include probes by federal prosecutors in New York, are politically motivated.
However, Mueller alone has already brought charges leading to indictments of six people with ties to Trump in the Russia collusion probe.
And critics say the secrecy around the financial workings of Trump’s real estate empire and his years of interest in doing business in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia make a troubling backdrop that requires deeper probing.
Texas Republican Ted Cruz won re-election to a second term in the Senate, beating off Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke in one of America’s most expensive and closely watched midterm races, US news networks projected Tuesday.
Cruz — a 47-year-old who battled President Donald Trump for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination — overcame major deficits in fundraising to ultimately defeat his charismatic rival, whose campaign electrified Democrats across the country and was backed by a galaxy of stars from Beyonce to Jim Carrey and LeBron James.
A win for O’Rourke, 46, a three-time congressman and former punk rocker whose given names are Robert Francis but who goes by Beto, would have amounted to a political earthquake in the reliably Republican “Lone Star State,” but he ultimately fell short.
Cruz’s campaign meanwhile was given a late boost by his former rival Trump, who belatedly stumped for the Cuban American two weeks before the vote.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump infamously insulted the looks of Cruz’s wife Heidi, vaguely suggested Cruz’s father had played a role in John F. Kennedy’s assassination and tagged him with the nickname “Lyin’ Ted” — an insult used by O’Rourke.
Cruz’s victory represented a significant boost for the Republican party as it looked set to retain control of the upper chamber of Congress.
Donald Trump, his Republicans and their Democratic rivals steeled themselves for a final frenzied day of campaigning Monday, on the eve of contentious US midterm elections, when voters render their verdict on the president’s first two years in office.
Trump has seized on the nativist ‘us-versus-them’ message that resonated with his base during the fiery 2016 campaign as he races across the country to secure votes, using inflammatory language as he paints a country under threat from hordes of illegal immigrants, rampant crime and far-left Democrats.
“They want to impose socialism on our country. And they want to erase America’s borders,” Trump told a raucous rally in Chattanooga, Tennessee late Sunday.
As Republicans aim to protect their majorities in the US House and Senate, Democrats hope their strong grassroots enthusiasm can help them win back at least partial control of Congress and thus thwart Trump’s agenda.
Fierce political battles were raging in races across the nation.
In traditionally red Texas, popular Democrat Beto O’Rourke is trying to dethrone Senator Ted Cruz, while Republican Pete Stauber might flip a House Democratic stronghold in Minnesota.
In Florida and Georgia, Democrats are aiming to become the states’ first African American governors.
Monday will be a barnstormer for Trump, who will make stops in Ohio and Indiana before a final campaign pitch in Missouri, where he is trying to knock Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill out of office.
Trump was on a hectic schedule of campaign appearances for Republican candidates Sunday, while former president Barack Obama made a last-ditch appeal for an endangered Senate Democrat in Indiana.
Election of ‘contrasts
“You gotta get to the polls on Tuesday, and you gotta vote,” Trump implored a crowd in Macon, Georgia, where he campaigned for the Republican gubernatorial candidate in one of the country’s tightest major races.
“The contrast in this election could not be more clear.”
Obama also laid into the president for the investigations into Russian interference in the US election that are weighing on his administration.
“They’ve racked up enough indictments to fill a football team,” Obama scoffed. “Nobody in my administration got indicted.”
Political passions have risen to a rare peak, with early voting in some states already running far ahead of normal levels.
“It’s all about turnout,” Senator Chris Van Hollen told “Fox News Sunday,” as Democrats wage what polls say is an uphill battle to win control of the US Senate.
Democrats are far better positioned for reclaiming a majority in the House, experts and polls say.
But in the first midterm under Trump — an utterly unconventional president — there are many unknowns, above all the bottom-line impact of a president who has driven both supporters and foes to a rare fever pitch of emotion.
“I can’t speak to the blue, but I can speak to the red,” Trump said earlier of Democrats and Republicans. “There is a lot of energy out there.”
Democrats out front
The party of a first-term president tends to lose congressional seats in his first midterm. But a healthy economy favours the incumbent — and the US economy has been growing with rare vigour.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll suggested that while Democrats retain an edge in their battle for the House, Republicans could take advantage of increasingly positive assessments of the economy and by Trump’s harsh focus on border security.
It found registered voters preferred Democratic candidates for the House over Republicans by 50 per cent to 43 per cent, but that was down from a 14-point advantage in August.
A second poll, by NBC and The Wall Street Journal, also showed Democrats holding the same seven-point advantage.
But in what could be a sharp warning sign for Republicans, that poll reported college-educated white women — the so-called suburban moms seen as crucial to the 2018 outcome — favour Democrats by a substantial 61 per cent to 33 per cent.
Another wild card: The campaign’s closing days come just a week after a gunman, who allegedly hated immigrants and Jews, killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
A fanatical Trump supporter was also arrested on charges of mailing pipe bombs to prominent opponents of the president, including Obama.
The president’s critics say the highly charged atmosphere he has helped create made the two attackers feel sufficiently comfortable to carry out their crimes.
Republicans, trying to move past that, have been enthusiastically pressing the economic argument.
But the president — to the unease of some in the party — has instead used his nearly nonstop schedule of campaign rallies to keep the spotlight on what he calls the security threat from migrants seeking to enter the nation through Mexico.
“We’re not letting these people invade our country,” Trump declared.
Democrats painted sharp distinctions with Trump, insisting that only they will protect the health care gains made under Obama, that Trump has employed inhumane measures to keep migrants out, and that the divisiveness he has fostered must end.
Obama meanwhile did what many Democratic candidates have refrained from doing: directly challenging the president.
“There’s got to be consequences when people don’t tell the truth when words stop meaning anything. When people can just lie with abandon, democracy can’t work,” he told a cheering crowd as he campaigned for Senator Joe Donnelly.
“The only check right now on the behaviour of these Republicans is you and your vote.”
Russian government hackers tried to hijack the websites of conservative US think tanks, Microsoft said Tuesday, raising fresh alarms over widening efforts by Moscow to sow discord in US politics.
The tech giant announced that it had shut down last week six fake internet domains that were set up by the notorious “Fancy Bear” hacking shop, controlled by the Russian armed forces’ GRU intelligence agency, that mimicked the pages of two think tanks as well as the US Senate.
The fake, lookalike websites were aimed at diverting users from the real ones in order to siphon off email and passwords, Microsoft said.
It was a significant expansion of the “Fancy Bear” activities, which, since the 2016 presidential race, had targeted mainly candidates and their campaigns, political parties, and voting systems.
It came amid heightened concerns that Russians are attempting to meddle in the upcoming congressional elections in November, in which President Donald Trump’s Republican Party’s lock-hold on the legislature is under threat.
Cybersecurity consultants including Microsoft have already identified several attempts to penetrate individual candidates’ campaigns.
“We’re concerned that these and other attempts pose security threats to a broadening array of groups connected with both American political parties in the run-up to the 2018 elections,” said Microsoft president Brad Smith in a blog post.
“It’s clear that democracies around the world are under attack,” he said.
The move came as US political institutions and government agencies have stepped up their defenses against hacking and social media manipulation after Russia’s deep interference in the 2016 presidential election.
US intelligence chiefs said President Vladimir Putin presided over the effort by the GRU and another intelligence body, the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, to break into computers of the Democratic Party and the campaign of Democrat Hillary Clinton, in an ultimately successful effort to damage her run for the White House.
In July, Russia meddling investigator Robert Mueller indicted 12 GRU agents over their hacking actions in the 2016 election.
Several Western European government, including Sweden, Germany, France and the Netherlands, have documented efforts by the same bodies to interfere in their politics in the past three years, sparking a broader effort to fight back.
Microsoft said one of the think tanks targeted by Fancy Bear, also known in cybersecurity circles as APT28, was the International Republican Institute, which promotes democratic principles and whose board includes Republican senator John McCain, a strong critic of Putin.
The other was the Hudson Institute, which supports keeping up economic and political pressure on Russia and strengthening NATO — positions that leaves it generally at odds with US President Donald Trump.
Last month US Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said in a talk at the Hudson Institute that, among cyber threats, “Russia has been the most aggressive foreign actor -– no question. And they continue their efforts to undermine our democracy.”
The GRU hackers also set up fake internet domains that were purportedly for the US Senate, according to Microsoft.
84 fake sites closed in two years
Microsoft obtained a court order to shut down the six websites. That took to 84 the number of fake sites set up by Fancy Bear that the company has taken down over the past two years, Smith said.
In the most recent case, Microsoft said it has no evidence the fake domains were used in any successful hacking attack, and that it did not know of any specific people who may have been GRU targets in the operation.
Experts said the aim was to go after anyone who opposes Putin.
“This is another demonstration of the fact that the Russians aren’t really pursuing partisan attacks. They are pursuing attacks that they perceive in their own national self-interest,” Eric Rosenbach, the director of the Defending Digital Democracy project at Harvard University, told the New York Times.
The Kremlin dismissed the fresh allegations, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying he did not know “which hackers are being talked about, what influencing of elections.”
“We do not understand what Russian military intelligence has to do with this. What are the basis of such serious accusations? They should not be raised without some foundation,” he told journalists.
A handful of top Republicans have shifted ground in their support for US presidential candidate Donald Trump after his remarks about women became public last week.
Since the comments became public, more than 12 Republican bigwigs have announced that they would not be voting for Mr Trump in November.
Mr Trump, who has apologized over his comments, however insists he will go ahead with his campaign, as he lashes out to some Republicans who advised him to withdraw from the race.
In the tape from 2005, Mr Trump is reportedly heard bragging about groping and kissing women.
Former Republican presidential candidate John McCain and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are the latest of such Republicans to withdraw their support.
Mr McCain said such comments “make it impossible to continue to offer even conditional support for his (Trump) candidacy.”
While Ms Rice said: “Enough! Donald Trump should not be President. He should withdraw.”
The Republican Senator from New Hampshire, Senator Kelly Ayotte, in a statement she released after Mr Trump’s comments were published said, “I cannot and will not support a candidate for president who brags about degrading and assaulting women.”
The Senator however says she won’t vote for Hilary Clinton either.
The Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Paul Ryan who was initially supposed to host Mr Trump at a campaign event in Wisconsin this weekend, withdrew the invitation, saying he is “sickened” by what he heard.
The second TV debate between Mr Trump and Mrs Clinton will take place on Sunday evening (October 9) in St Louis.