Facebook has decided to take down more than 270 pages and accounts operated by the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian organization accused of meddling in the 2016 US presidential election. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the step aimed “to protect the integrity of elections around the world”.

In a statement posted on the social networking site late on Tuesday, Zuckerberg said, “Most of our actions against the IRA to date have been to prevent them from interfering in foreign elections. This update is about taking down their pages targeting people living in Russia.”

It may be mentioned that US Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation team is probing into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

“This morning, we removed 70 Facebook and 65 Instagram accounts — as well as 138 Facebook Pages — that were controlled by the Russia-based Internet Research Agency (IRA). Many of the Pages also ran ads, all of which have been removed,” Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos said in a separate post.

He said 95 per cent of the Pages that had content were in Russian, targeted either at people living in Russia or Russian-speakers around the world including from neighboring countries like Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine.

 

Alex Stamos post
Alex Stamos, Chief Security Officer, posted this infographic on newsroom.fb.com

 

Stamos also said uncovering this activity took months of work.

Zuckerberg said Facebook had found the IRA had been using complex networks of fake accounts to deceive people. “While we respect people and governments sharing political views on Facebook, we do not allow them to set up fake accounts to do this. When an organization does this repeatedly, we take down all of their pages, including ones that may not be fake themselves. The pages and accounts we took down today were removed because they were controlled by the IRA, not based on the content they shared,” he said in the post.

Zuckerberg said some of the removed pages belonged to Russian news organisations that Facebook determined were controlled by the IRA. “About one million people followed at least one of their Facebook pages and about 500,000 followed at least one of their Instagram accounts. In the next few weeks, we’ll release a tool so you can check if you liked or followed an IRA-controlled account,” said the CEO’s post.

Zuckerberg said the Russian agency had repeatedly acted deceptively and tried to manipulate people in the US, Europe, and Russia. “…and we don’t want them on Facebook anywhere in the world,” he said.

Zuckerberg listed the efforts taken by the social media giant on this front.

“After 2016, we found that the Russian IRA had set up a network of hundreds of fake accounts to spread divisive content and interfere in the US presidential election. We began investigating their activity globally and taking down their pages and accounts,” he said.

The Facebook CEO added: “Since then, we have improved our techniques to prevent nation states from interfering in foreign elections, and we’ve built more advanced AI tools to remove fake accounts more generally. There have been a number of important elections since then where these new tools have been successfully deployed.”

Giving examples, he said Facebook found and took down 30,000 fake accounts in France ahead of the presidential election in 2017.

In Germany too, he said, Facebook worked directly with the Federal Office for Information Security before the 2017 elections to learn about the threats they saw and to share information.

“In the US Senate Alabama special election last year, we deployed new AI tools that proactively detected and removed fake accounts from Macedonia trying to spread misinformation,” Zuckerberg added in the post.

See the full post here.

Facebook has been facing a backlash after it came to light that political data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica, which worked with Donald Trump’s election team, allegedly harvested 50 million Facebook profiles of US voters to influence their choices.

The social media giant has since suspended Cambridge Analytica saying it violated Facebook’s policies and commitments.

Cambridge Analytica received user data from a Facebook app years ago that purported to be a psychological research tool, though the firm was not authorised to have that information.

Facebook now claims to have significantly increased investment in security. “We now have about 15,000 people working on security and content review. We’ll have more than 20,000 by the end of this year,” said the CEO.

He claimed the efforts had all made it harder for nation states to interfere in foreign elections. “With today’s update, we have now identified a large network the IRA is using to manipulate people in Russia itself. This is the next step towards removing them from Facebook entirely,” Zuckerberg posted.

 

He said while organisations like the IRA were constantly evolving sophisticated adversaries, Facebook would keep improving its techniques to stay ahead – “especially when it comes to protecting the integrity of elections”.