Facebook, on Thursday 17 January, announced that it had removed a total of 471 pages, accounts and groups for engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”. According to Facebook’s post, these pages were masquerading as general interest or independent news pages until they were discovered to be linked to employees of Sputnik, a Russian news agency.
This coordination was detected on Facebook as well Instagram and have been linked to two operations, both of which originate in Russia. While one operation was active across countries of eastern Europe and central Asia, the other was found to be active only in Ukraine.
Nathaniel Gleicher, head of Facebook’s cybersecurity, clarified that the take down was a result of their behaviour and not the content they posted. Gleicher described the behaviour as one intended to “manipulate people” and mislead them “about who they were and what they were doing”.
The administrators and account owners had registered their pages under categories such as weather, travel, sports, economics, or politicians in Romania, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Russia, and Kyrgyzstan, according to the social media platform.
However, these pages were found to be amplifying content from Russia’s Sputnik news agency in a coordinated manner and on issues unrelated to the nature of the page. The fact that Sputnik was the only source of news for most of the pages proved to be a red flag.
"Despite their misrepresentations of their identities, we found that these Pages and accounts were linked to employees of Sputnik, a news agency based in Moscow, and that some of the Pages frequently posted about topics like anti-NATO sentiment, protest movements, and anti-corruption." - Nathaniel Gleicher, head of Facebook’s cybersecurity
In its post Facebook shared data that serve to illustrate the scale and reach of the covert operation.
- The coordinated covert activity was detected among 289 Facebook pages and 75 accounts.
- Around 790,000 accounts followed one or more of these pages.
- The pages and accounts spent a combined $135,000 in advertisements which were paid for in Euros, US Dollars and Russian Rubles.
- The advertisements ran from October 2013 up to January 2019.
- These pages and accounts had also hosted 190 events between August 2015 and January 2019. While ,1200 people had expressed interest in attending these events, Facebook has not been independently verify if these events actually took place.
Separately, based on a tip-off from United States law enforcement agencies, Facebook removed another 107 pages and accounts found to be operating specifically in Ukraine. These pages exhibited similar patterns of behaviour and posting as the ones spread across other east European and central Asian countries. The network, according to Facebook, originated in Russia and operated in Ukraine.
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