Cybersecurity experts warn Russian trolls are changing with the times, adjusting their interference tactics to avoid detection and stay ahead of social media and tech companies determined to do better after getting caught flat-footed in 2016.
Instead of creating fake content, they are using fake accounts to spread already created, politically charged messaging.
The Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency may be among those trying to circumvent protections put in place by companies including Facebook Inc.and Twitter Inc. to find and remove fake content that hackers created to sow division among the American electorate in the 2016 presidential campaign.
“Instead of creating content themselves, we see them amplifying content,” said John Hultquist, the director of intelligence analysis at FireEye Inc.“Then it’s not necessarily inauthentic, and that creates an opportunity for them to hide behind somebody else.”
Other hackers are breaking into computing devices and using them to open large numbers of social media accounts, according to Candid Wueest, a senior threat researcher at Symantec Corp. The hacked devices are used to create many legitimate-looking users as well as believable followers and likes for those fake users.
Wueest said he observed a decrease in the creation of new content by fake accounts from 2017 to 2018 and a shift toward building massive followings that could be used as platforms for divisive messages in 2020.
FBI Director Christopher Wray warned last week that Russian interference is ongoing, and social media platforms remain vulnerable.
“What has continued virtually unabated and just intensifies during the election cycles is this malign foreign influence campaign, especially using social media,” Wray said. “That continues, and we’re gearing up for it to continue and grow again for 2020.”
Nathaniel Gleicher, the head of cybersecurity policy at Facebook, said policing those efforts is “an incredibly hard balance.”
Companies must “identify ways to impose more friction on the bad actors and the behaviors that they’re using without simultaneously imposing friction on the meaningful public discussion,” Gleicher said.