This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Facebook said on March 26 that it has deleted more than 2,600 fake pages and accounts linked to Russia, Iran, North Macedonia, and Kosovo as the firm continues a crackdown against troll networks that try to manipulate public opinion in other countries.
Facebook cybersecurity chief Nathaniel Gleicher said 1,907 group pages and accounts “linked to Russia” were removed for “posting spam” that included “content related to Ukrainian news and politics” ahead of Ukraine’s March 31 presidential election.
He said the Ukraine-related content included posts about “the ongoing conflict in the eastern part of Ukraine, local and regional politics; Ukrainian patriotism; refugee issues; Ukrainian military; the situation in Crimea; corruption.”
Gleicher said “a small portion” of the Russia-linked pages were run by individuals who “engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior.”
That is a term Facebook uses to describe a social media manipulation tactic it says was used by Russia’s notorious “troll farm” — the Internet Research Agency — to try to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“We are constantly working to detect and stop this type of activity because we don’t want our services to be used to manipulate people,” Gleicher said in a March 26 statement.
“We’re taking down these pages and accounts based on their behavior, not the content they posted,” Gleicher said. “In each case, the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves.”
Gleicher said rooting out such abuse was “an ongoing challenge because the people responsible are determined and well-funded.”
Facebook did not announce whom it suspects funded the recently deleted Russian troll network pages and accounts, saying they’ve become more sophisticated about hiding their identity than the Internet Research Agency had been in 2016.
Altogether, the recently deleted Russian trolls included just 64 individual Facebook accounts. They included 1,757 Facebook groups and 86 pages on Facebook and its Instagram network.
Gleicher said more than 1.7 million Facebook accounts had joined one or more of the malicious Russia-linked groups and about 50,000 accounts followed one or more of the dubious Russia-linked pages.
Unlike 2016, when accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency had purchased Facebook advertising, Gleicher said no advertisement spending was associated with the most recently deleted Russia-linked accounts.
Facebook said on March 26 that 513 pages or accounts it recently removed as trolls were “part of multiple networks tied to Iran.”
“They operated in Egypt, India, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Kashmir, Kazakhstan, or broadly across the Middle East and North Africa,” Gleicher said.
“They represented themselves as locals and made-up media entities, often using fake accounts — and they impersonated real political groups and media organizations,” Gleicher said, adding that the Iran-linked pages had copied a Russian troll farm tactic called “false amplification.”
That’s when fake accounts work together with accounts of people who use their real name in order to flood web forums with posts aimed at manipulating online public debate.
“They posted news stories on current events and frequently repurposed and amplified content from Iranian state media,” Gleicher said.
‘Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior’
Topics of Iranian social media manipulation campaigns included “sanctions against Iran, tensions between India and Pakistan, conflicts in Syria and Yemen, terrorism, tensions between Israel and Palestine, Islamic religious issues, Indian politics, and the recent crisis in Venezuela,” Gleicher said.
In the Balkans, Facebook says it removed 212 pages, groups, and accounts for “coordinated inauthentic behavior” originating from North Macedonia and Kosovo.
They included 40 groups or pages and 172 fake individual accounts that spent about $5,800 on advertising from October 2013 through March 2019.
“The individuals behind this activity operated fake accounts to administer pages sharing general, non-country specific content like astrology, celebrities, and beauty tips,” Gleicher said.
But one example of political content shared on health issues was an English-language post that weighed in against so-called “remainer ministers” in the British government ahead of Britain’s 2016 Brexit referendum.
“They also ran a small number of pages purporting to represent political communities in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States — and posted about religious and political topics like nationalism, Islam, and political figures,” he said.
“Even though they tried to misrepresent themselves, we found that these pages, groups, and accounts were linked to a network of individuals operating in [North] Macedonia and Kosovo,” Gleicher said.
Followers from about 685,000 accounts around the world followed one or more of the deleted pages that were being run from North Macedonia and Kosovo, he said.
Although the deleted troll networks linked to Russia, Iran, North Macedonia, and Kosovo all used similar tactics to try to manipulate public opinion in other countries, Gleicher said Facebook did not find any links between their sets of activities.
Facebook has been publishing results of its account purges in recent months.
It also has stepped up activities to show that it is trying to prevent interference and manipulation in elections around the world.