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Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Facebook warned Tuesday that bad actors are increasingly taking to social media to create the false perception that they’ve pulled off major hacks of electoral systems or have otherwise seriously disrupted elections.

Why it matters: "Perception hacking," as Facebook calls it, can have dire consequences on people's faith in democracy, sowing distrust, division and confusion among the voters it targets.

Driving the news: The tech giant said Thursday that it recently took down three separate networks that violated its policies around coordinated inauthentic behavior, one of which was linked to a perception hack.

  • That particular network focused primarily on the U.S. and Israel. Facebook said it originated in Iran and had ties to that country's government. Facebook said it found this network after the FBI discovered off-platform activity by a network claiming to have interfered in the U.S. election.
  • As for the other two networks, one primarily targeted the U.S. and was operated by people in Mexico and Venezuela, while the other originated in Myanmar and focused on domestic audiences.

Be smart: Facebook says perception hacks are on the rise because industry and the government are getting better at catching and removing coordinated inauthentic networks before they can actually have a significant impact.

  • "As it gets harder to go undetected for long periods of time, we see malicious actors attempt to play on our collective expectation of wide-spread interference to create the perception that they’re more impactful than they in fact are," the company's head of security policy Nathaniel Gleicher said in a blog post.

The big picture: Perception hacking poses a particularly acute threat to the 2020 U.S. election because it's already clouded by so much uncertainty around things like mail-in voting.

  • Last week, intelligence officials said Iranian operators had emailed Americans using publicly available voter registration information to say that they had successfully hacked the election.
  • At the time, FBI Director Christopher Wray said, "You should be confident that your vote counts. Early, unverified claims to the contrary should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism."
  • These same actors also tried to spread their claims on Facebook, the platform said Thursday.

What's next: "We’re closely monitoring for potential scenarios where malicious actors around the world may use fictitious claims, including about compromised election infrastructure or inaccurate election outcomes, to suppress voter turnout or erode trust in the poll results, particularly in battleground states," Gleicher wrote.

Go deeper

Nov 30, 2020 - Technology

Facebook's pre-election restrictions didn't dent political ad reach

Photo: Valera Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Americans saw more political ads on Facebook in the week before the 2020 election than they did the prior week despite the company's blackout on new political ads during that period, according to Global Witness, a human rights group that espouses tech regulation.

Why it matters: The presidential election was a key stress test for Facebook and other leading online platforms looking to prove that they can curb misinformation. Critics contend measures like the new-ad blackout barely made a dent.

Dec 1, 2020 - Technology

Facebook, Google push deals despite antitrust scrutiny

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Facebook announced Monday that it has purchased a customer service chatbot startup called Kustomer. The app reportedly cost Facebook $1 billion, the same amount it paid for Instagram in 2012.

Why it matters: The deal is the latest sign that the world's biggest tech companies, despite facing enormous antitrust scrutiny globally, will not stop buying up other companies.
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Dec 1, 2020 - Technology

Facebook News to launch in U.K. in January

Photo: Chesnot/Getty Images

Facebook said Monday that it plans to launch Facebook News in the U.K. in January, with several big publishers, including Conde Nast, The Economist, Guardian Media Group, Hearst and others, initially providing content.

Why it matters: The creation of Facebook's dedicated News tab has helped the company appease regulator demands globally for more equitable relationships with news publishers.