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Facebook removes hundreds of fake pages, accounts ‘linked’ to Russia’s Sputnik

Facebook mobile app on a cellphone. (downloadsource.fr/Flickr)
This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Facebook has removed hundreds of pages, groups, and accounts on its Facebook and Instagram platforms that the U.S. company says were part of two online disinformation operations targeting users across the former Soviet space.

“The two operations we found originated in Russia, and one was active in a variety of countries while the other was specific to Ukraine,” Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, said in in a blog post on January 17.

No links between these operations were found, Gleicher said, but they used “similar tactics by creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing.”

Gleicher said one network of 364 pages and accounts was “linked” to employees of Sputnik, a Russian state-run news site.

Sputnik’s Armenia branch said on Facebook that its Russian-language page had been blocked and that as a result “our news in the Russian language will temporarily be published on the Armenian page.”

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“Given the possibility that the Armenian page might be blocked too, we ask you to follow our news” on Telegram, VKontakte, Twitter, and other platforms, Sputnik told its readers in a statement on Facebook.

In a separate statement quoted by Russia’s state-owned RIA Novosti news agency, Sputnik said Facebook’s decision was “clearly political” and amounted to “censorship.”

The people running the accounts presented themselves as independent news sources, posted on issues such as anti-NATO sentiment, protest movements, and targeted users in the Baltics, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Central and Eastern European countries, according to Gleicher.

The operation appears to have been an attempt to sow discord in the targeted countries while boosting Sputnik’s audience.

One of the posts accuses NATO of “ruining” the Baltics. Another warns about “politicized myths” about Russia “turning off electricity” in Lithuania.

The U.S. social-networking company also removed 107 Facebook pages, groups, and accounts, as well as 41 Instagram accounts for engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behavior” as part of the network operated in Ukraine.

‘Troll Farm’

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The individuals behind these accounts primarily represented themselves as Ukrainian, Gleicher said, and they operated a variety of fake accounts while sharing typically negative local Ukrainian news stories on a variety of topics such as protests, NATO, and health conditions in schools.

“We identified some technical overlap with Russia-based activity we saw prior to the US midterm elections, including behavior that shared characteristics with previous Internet Research Agency (IRA) activity,” Gleicher wrote.

The St. Petersburg-based IRA company, commonly known as the Russian “troll farm,” is reportedly financed by a Kremlin-connected businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. He and 12 other people were indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in February on charges including bank fraud, conspiracy, and identity theft.

IRA set up fake personas and used media like Facebook, Google, and Twitter to spread misinformation, sow doubts, pump up support for Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election, according to a report produced for the U.S. Senate and released last month.

Facebook has been criticized over the last two years for not acting fast enough to combat fake news, propaganda operations, and extremist content spread on its platforms.

Facebook and Twitter removed millions of posts and closed accounts linked to influence operations by Russia, Iran and other actors ahead of U.S. mid-term elections in November.

“Our security efforts are ongoing to help us stay a step ahead and uncover this kind of abuse, particularly in light of important political moments and elections in Europe this year,” Gleicher wrote.” We are committed to making improvements and building stronger partnerships around the world to more effectively detect and stop this activity.”