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Facebook warns of "perception hacks" undermining trust in democracy

Facebook warned Thursday 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 US 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 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 Wrap 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.

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