Facebook blocks fresh Russian attempts to meddle in 2020 US elections

Caravanserai and AFP

Facebook took new measures this week against state-run influence campaigns. [File]

Facebook took new measures this week against state-run influence campaigns. [File]

SAN FRANCISCO -- Facebook Monday (October 21) said it had taken down a number of accounts tied to Russia whose owners were attempting to meddle in the 2020 US presidential elections.

The social network said it was taking down more accounts for "inauthentic" activity and stepping up scrutiny of "state-controlled" media seeking to manipulate American voters.

As Facebook unveiled its latest steps, an analysis of activity on the social platform released by the analytics firm Graphika showed accounts originating from Russia taking aim at US political candidates and issues.

These accounts reused messages from the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA), which targeted US audiences in the 2016 presidential election, and "Facebook's own analysis ... showed some links to the IRA", said the report.

One of the new steps announced by Facebook calls for labelling of messages coming from state-controlled media outlets, starting next month.

"We will hold these pages to a higher standard of transparency because they combine the opinion-making influence of a media organisation with the strategic backing of a state," a Facebook blog post said.

Facebook said it would seek to curb the viral spread of misinformation by using a "pop-up" that will appear when users attempt to share posts on Instagram debunked by third-party fact-checkers.

It also outlined steps to protect against "voter suppression" including any efforts to mislead voters about where or when to vote.

The tech giant said it removed four separate networks of accounts from Russia and Iran for "co-ordinated inauthentic behavior" on Facebook and Instagram.

Three of the groups originated in Iran and one in Russia, and they targeted users in the United States, North Africa and Latin America.

The Russian accounts appeared to sow division by posting from both sides of the political spectrum, said the Graphika analysis.

An Iranian account that "masqueraded as a news entity" posted on topics including race relations and US and Israeli policy on Iran.

Targeting Central Asia

Russia exploits the internet to influence elections abroad, said Askat Dukenbayev, a political analyst from Bishkek, in September 2018.

That behaviour includes inciting xenophobia in the United States and Europe, spreading anti-American sentiments and bolstering Russian influence in Russian-speaking countries, he said.

Russian online "troll factories" meanwhile are ramping up their operations in Central Asia as Moscow moves to realise its strategic ambitions in the region.

Such operations often present two faces to their different audiences, cultivating a positive image of Russia and promoting its policy for consumption within Central Asian countries while simultaneously smearing migrant workers from Central Asia on TV and other media in Russia.

In May, Facebook removed a number of pages, groups and accounts that originated in Russia amid a continuing campaign of malign influence targeting numerous regions, including Central Asia.

Facebook in April 2018 announced the shutdown of hundreds of Facebook and Instagram accounts connected to a Russian "troll factory" accused of attempting to influence public opinion around the world.

The company said in a statement at the time that it removed 70 Facebook accounts, 138 Facebook pages and 65 Instagram accounts, adding that 95% of the deleted Facebook pages and Instagram accounts were in Russian.

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