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With Midterms on the Horizon, Will Facebook Repeat the Same Mistakes?

Months after rolling out a plan to fight against election interference, Facebook recently unearthed yet another smattering of shady factions attempting to thwart the democratic process. According to the Associated Press, the social media company named 32 so-called fake accounts on its platform and Instagram that supposedly employed “sophisticated” efforts to influence U.S. politics.

In response to its findings, Facebook removed the accounts on the grounds of “coordinated” and “inauthentic” political social media engagement. After initially refusing to mention specific suspects or motives, Facebook eventually conceded that the content mirrored propaganda from Russia’s previous political interference.

“We're still investigating what happened, but whoever created this network of accounts took a lot of effort to hide their real identity, so we don't yet know for certain who is responsible,” Facebook CEO Zuckerberg wrote. “That said, some of this activity is similar to what the Internet Research Agency in Russia did before and after the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.”

The social media platform revealed that 290,000 Facebook users followed at least one of the fake accounts, which shared content about the president, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and the Unite the Right rally, whose organizers vehemently denied any Russian affiliation. Even as we await conclusive evidence of Russian involvement, one can’t help but raise an eyebrow at the timing and familiarity of these digital schemes.

First off, we’re a little more than three months away from the U.S. midterm congressional, state and local elections, which makes it extremely difficult to dismiss a connection between the appearance of those now-deleted social media accounts and previous infiltration attempts that resulted in the eventual election of Donald Trump. And while they may not draw the same level of attention as the presidential election, the 2018 midterms still yield pivotal consequences for the country.

The owners of these accounts went to great lengths to remain untraceable by hiding their modes of operation, including financing ads through third parties and concealing their locations through virtual private networks.

As Vox puts it, “Depending on how well Democrats do, the party could kill the Republican legislative agenda in Congress, gain new powers to investigate the Trump administration, get the ability to block Trump’s nominees from being confirmed, pass new liberal state laws in many parts of the country, and win many offices with power over the 2021 redistricting process. But if Democrats do poorly, they could feel the consequences of their failure for a generation.”

As it stands, Democrats have a bit of work ahead of them in terms of gaining leverage, but a March report from The New York Times noted that the party was performing better than Republicans in generic ballot polls, which paints a broad picture of how people will vote during congressional elections.

Considering the fact that Trump owes his presidency (in part) to outside interference, who’s to say that these new accounts weren’t created with the intention of helping the president maintain his current relationship with Congress?

These perceived advantages may or may not be tied to the rogue accounts Facebook uncovered, but to conclude that they’re related wouldn’t be a far stretch given the prior proven success of these types of campaigns (see: the mind-boggling Cambridge Analytica fiasco). Apparently, the owners of these accounts went to great lengths to remain untraceable by hiding their modes of operation, including financing ads through third parties and concealing their locations through virtual private networks.

Despite the protests by self-proclaimed right-wing groups, Facebook maintains that it will continue investigating the source of the deleted accounts, which shows that the company is at least attempting to right its incredibly damning past infractions by 1) paying attention to the murkiness that often thrives on its platforms and 2) not carelessly profiting off said murkiness.

Many of its users understandably fled the social media site after learning of its role in election interference (including Playboy), and more recently, Facebook took an unprecedented single-day stock market hit. While undeniably critical, these are just a slice of the pressing issues with which the company must contend. With the already dwindling faith Americans have in the U.S. political system, let’s hope that Facebook continues to perform timely call-outs of attempted interference for the sake of transparency and the rights of those who keep the platform relevant.