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Facebook removes hundreds of accounts linked to Russian agencies ahead of election

Facebook removes hundreds of accounts linked to Russian agencies ahead of election
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Facebook on Thursday announced it has removed three networks consisting of hundreds of accounts, pages and groups tied to Russian malign influence efforts, including accounts with ties to past efforts by the Russian government to target U.S. elections.

One of the networks included 214 Facebook accounts, 35 pages, 18 groups and 34 Instagram accounts. It was removed for violating policies against foreign or government interference, with Facebook announcing the networks had posed as journalists or credible news sources in an effort to spread Russian narratives. 

The accounts, pages and groups originated in Russia, and primarily targeted Syria and Ukraine along with several other countries including the United States. The actors behind the accounts posted in a variety of languages on news and current events, including U.S. politics, the Syrian civil war and the war in Ukraine. 

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“They used fake accounts to create elaborate fictitious personas across many internet services, posing as journalists to contact news organizations, purporting to be locals in countries they targeted, and managing Groups and Pages, some of which proclaimed to be hacktivist groups,” Nathaniel Gleicher, head of Security Policy at Facebook, wrote in a blog post Thursday.

“These clusters also focused on driving people to their off-platform sites and other social media platforms where, among other themes, they promoted content related to past alleged leaks of compromising information,” he added. “The operation had almost no following on our platforms when we removed it.”

Gleicher noted that the networks removed were tied to Russian actors involved in hack-and-leak efforts around the 2016 elections, an issue that Facebook is particularly focused on headed into November. 

“We’ve seen deceptive campaigns target journalists and public figures in the past, including as part of hack-and-leak operations,” Gleicher wrote, noting that the networks removed Thursday had not yet engaged in this type of effort, and that Facebook had shared its findings with law enforcement. 

According to Gleicher, the network of accounts and pages taken down Thursday were tied to previously removed Russia-linked networks removed by Facebook in 2018 ahead of the midterm election and a second major takedown earlier this year. Both clusters of accounts, pages and groups were tied back by Facebook to the Russian military. 

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A second network removed involved five accounts, one page, one group and three Instagram accounts also linked to Russia for using fake accounts to pose as a Turkish think tank, which posted information on news and current events. 

The third Russian linked network — composed of 23 Facebook accounts, six pages and eight Instagram accounts — posed as editors and researchers writing about news and current events, specifically U.S., Russian and Ukrainian politics. 

“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities and coordination, our investigation found links to individuals in Russia, including those associated with Russian intelligence services,” Gleicher wrote.

Gleicher noted that Facebook had informed law enforcement of its findings, but described the fight to stamp out foreign malign influence efforts as a “whole-of-society challenge.”  

“We are making progress rooting out this abuse, but as we’ve said before, it’s an ongoing effort,” Gleicher wrote. “We’re committed to continually improving to stay ahead.”

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This is the second time Facebook has removed accounts this week, with the platform removing two networks promoting government propaganda targeting the Philippines, Southeast Asia, and the U.S. on Tuesday. 

Facebook has been promoting election security and voter education this week following National Voter Registration Day. Among its efforts, the company will promote a notification at the top of news feeds for page administrators for political campaigns and officials encouraging them to sign up for Facebook Protect, which boosts security of these accounts ahead of Election Day.

-Updated at 7:20 p.m.