An explosive claim by the US State Department last weekend that there are thousands of Russian-linked social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter spreading disinformation about the coronavirus made headlines around the world.
But almost a week later, Facebook and Twitter say the State Department has yet to provide evidence that would allow the companies to investigate and possibly shut down the accounts.
“We would love to get a briefing on this,” Yoel Roth, who leads Twitter’s team investigating coordinated influence campaigns, said at the RSA cybersecurity conference in San Francisco Thursday.
Speaking at the same event, Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity, said, “We have asked for any evidence that supports this, we haven’t received anything yet.”
The lingering questions expressed publicly by senior staff at these tech companies may raise new doubts about how the US government is working with Silicon Valley to combat Russian disinformation targeting Americans as well as how the government determines where online disinformation is coming from.
The State Department went public with its findings in a story published by the French press agency AFP last weekend.
“In this case, we were able to see their full disinformation ecosystem in effect, including state TV, proxy web sites and thousands of false social media personas all pushing the same themes,” Lea Gabrielle, State Department special envoy and coordinator of the Global Engagement Center (GEC), told AFP.
The GEC is an arm of the State Department that is charged with investigating and exposing foreign influence and disinformation campaigns targeting the US and its allies. Gabrielle, a former Fox News reporter, joined the GEC last year.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he was confident in the GEC during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, after Gabrielle was put in charge.
“I feel like we’ve made strides. Look, it took us a little while. We didn’t have someone there that we chose to lead that organization,” Pompeo said. “We now have that person in place and I think it’s improved dramatically, really in over the last two months.”
The GEC is the primary State Department arm to combat Russian disinformation, sources have told CNN.
Russia ran an expansive covert social media influence campaign targeting the 2016 US presidential election. While Russia may very well be doing the same around the coronavirus, there is skepticism of the methods the State Department used in reaching its conclusion.
Russia has denied the allegations of being behind the alleged coronavirus disinformation campaign. “It is a deliberate fake,” Russian Foreign Ministry’s Spokesperson Maria Zakharova told Russian state news agency Tass last Saturday.
Discussing the challenge of attributing actions in the online disinformation space to specific actors, Gleicher said, “When you don’t share the evidence behind it, but you make a broad claim, it becomes incredibly difficult to understand if anything is there, but the theory something is there is off to the races.”
“And particularly now,” he added, “because people are looking for Russian actors under every rock and because we know an explicit part of Russia’s goal is to get us to look for Russian actors under every rock. That is really challenging.”
Gleicher said Facebook and other social media companies have good working relationships with the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Office of Director of National Intelligence.
Roth said that “clearly Russian” accounts — with very obvious names — have shared false medical information about the coronavirus, but Twitter had not observed “2016-style” covert activity.
“If the question is are there clandestine assets on Twitter or on Instagram or on Facebook that are engaged in some sort of 2016 style covert activity, our experience thus far is no, we haven’t identified anything like that,” he said.
Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone told CNN on Friday that the State Department had given the company a short briefing on its findings earlier this week but had not provided Facebook with a copy of the report.
“We have asked the State Department to share the evidence behind their report,” a Facebook spokesperson said. “If and when they do so, we will prioritize its review as part of our ongoing effort to monitor for coronavirus-related information operations and if we find anything we’ll announce it.”
A Twitter spokesperson told CNN on Friday that the company had requested information from the State Department. The spokesperson said the company had not yet been briefed but was in communication with State.
“The State Department routinely partners with social media companies to counter disinformation and we welcome this ongoing collaboration,” a State Department spokesperson told CNN.
Facebook and Twitter have both announced various initiatives aimed at combatting the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus.