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Facebook removes accounts linked to foreign influence efforts ahead of election

Facebook removes accounts linked to foreign influence efforts ahead of election
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Facebook on Tuesday announced it had removed three networks made up of dozens of accounts and pages tied to foreign malign influence efforts, including accounts linked to Iranian interference in U.S. elections.

Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy, announced the takedowns in a blog post, noting that the company had removed 12 Facebook accounts, six pages and 11 Instagram accounts tied to Iran for violating the platform’s policies around government interference.

Facebook removed the network of accounts after a tip from the FBI, with Gleicher noting that one account was removed due to its attempts “to seed false claims and unsubstantiated election-related threats as part of an influence operation carried out primarily via email.”

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The takedown comes one week after the FBI, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and other federal authorities announced that Russian and Iranian agents had successfully gained access to U.S. voter registration data and were using it to interfere in U.S. elections. 

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Gleicher noted that the Iranian-linked accounts taken down had been mostly dormant since last year and had begun spreading content aimed at discrediting Israel. 

The Facebook accounts and pages in this network had around 120 followers, while the Instagram accounts had around 700 followers. Facebook found that some of these accounts had links to individuals associated with the Iranian government who were also previously linked to accounts removed by the platform in April. 

"The networks we removed today were caught early in their operation, before they were able to build their audience,” Gleicher wrote.

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“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. We call it perception hacking — an attempt to weaponize uncertainty to sow distrust and division," he added.

Facebook also took action against two other networks of accounts for coordinated inauthentic behavior, including two Facebook pages and 22 Instagram accounts tied to efforts to target U.S. users by individuals based in Mexico and Venezuela. 

These accounts had far more followers, with one or more of the Instagram accounts taken down followed by 54,500 users, around half of which were U.S. users. The FBI alerted Facebook to these accounts’ activities. 

The accounts linked to Mexico and Venezuela posted in both English and Spanish, and posed as Americans in order to promote certain social or political causes. Some of the posts included memes previously created by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm that has been linked to disinformation campaigns aimed at both the 2016 and 2018 U.S. elections. 

The third network taken down by Facebook consisted of nine Facebook accounts, eight pages, two groups and two Instagram accounts that originated in Myanmar and were tied to efforts to influence the domestic audience there. The posts were mostly written in Burmese, and around 16,500 accounts followed one or more of the Facebook pages removed. 

Gleicher emphasized Tuesday that while Facebook was on “high alert” for coordinated inauthentic behavior, and would take steps to remove accounts involved in these efforts, the networks were “ineffective.”

"It’s important that we all stay vigilant, but also see these campaigns for what they are — small and ineffective,” Gleicher wrote. “Overstating the importance of these campaigns is exactly what these malicious actors want, and we should not take the bait.”

Facebook regularly removes and publicizes the removal of accounts involved in influence operations, a key priority of the company in the years since the 2016 election, when Russian agents used the platform as part of a sweeping and sophisticated campaign aimed to sway the election towards now-President Trump. 

The social media company took down hundreds of Facebook and Instagram accounts last month linked to Russian efforts to sway the general election, with the company noting that these networks of accounts had posed as journalists or credible news sources in an effort to spread Russian narratives.