Facebook removes accounts linked to Russian intelligence groups

Facebook said it removed dozens of Facebook and Instagram accounts, Pages, and groups from Russia, Iran, Vietnam and Myanmar for "foreign or government interference".
Facebook said it removed dozens of Facebook and Instagram accounts, Pages, and groups from Russia, Iran, Vietnam and Myanmar for "foreign or government interference".PHOTO: REUTERS

SAN FRANCISCO (BLOOMBERG) - Facebook Inc. has removed three separate online operations run by foreign governments or foreign actors for trying to hide their true identity and mislead users on the social network.

The social-media company said it removed dozens of Facebook and Instagram accounts, Pages, and groups from Russia, Iran, Vietnam and Myanmar for "foreign or government interference", meaning the networks were trying to "manipulate public debate in another country".

The largest of the campaigns originated in Russia, and used accounts masquerading as locals to try to influence users in Ukraine by sharing posts about local and political news, Facebook said. The company was able to link the accounts to "Russian military intelligence services", according to a blog post.

"Some of these accounts represented themselves as citizen journalists and tried to contact policymakers, journalists and other public figures in the region," the post stated. The account owners posted content in Russian, English and Ukrainian about Russian military engagement in Syria, ethnic tensions in Crimea, and the downing of a Malaysian plane in Ukraine in 2014, among other topics. 

Another, smaller campaign originated in Iran and targeted American users, posting content covering topics including the US elections, Christianity and criticism of US policies in the Middle East. The entire network comprised just 11 Facebook and Instagram accounts.

The last campaign originated in Myanmar and Vietnam, and targeted users in Myanmar. It included 13 accounts, and 10 Pages, though more than 265,000 people followed at least one of the Pages in the network, Facebook said.

The accounts in the last campaign typically posted articles about alleged business failures of some service providers in the two countries. In total, they spent more than US$1.15 million (S$1.6 million) on advertisements on the platform, paid for using US dollars and Vietnamese dong. Facebook's investigations found these accounts linked to two telecom providers and a Vietnamese public relations company. 

Takedowns like these have become somewhat routine for Facebook, which has made a concerted effort to combat fake accounts and profiles since the 2016 US presidential election. It faces even more pressure to do so now, ahead of the US election in November, after a prolonged investigation concluded that Russia had interfered in the 2016 vote to help Mr Donald Trump win the presidency. 

In the past year, Facebook has removed similar networks of accounts, which it calls "coordinated inauthentic behaviour", that originated in more than a dozen countries, including Russia, China, Iran, Spain and the United States.

Last August, the company said it dismantled a state-backed information operation originating in mainland China that sought to undermine pro-democracy, anti-government protests in Hong Kong, Reuters reported. Facebook said it had removed the accounts and pages after a tip from Twitter, which also suspended more than 900 accounts linked to the same operation.