Media

Facebook uncovers Kremlin-linked campaign bent on sowing US chaos

Caravanserai and AFP

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The Russian propaganda machine once again has tried to exploit social media platforms to spread disinformation. [Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD/AFP]

Facebook on Tuesday (September 1) said it uncovered a budding Kremlin-linked campaign to fuel political chaos in the United States in its latest take-down of Russian disinformation at the social network.

The company removed the network of 13 Facebook accounts and two pages posing as journalists and targeting left-wing progressives violating its policy against "foreign interference".

The investigation that uncovered the covert operation, which Facebook blamed on the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Kremlin's "troll factory", started with a tip from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to Facebook head of security policy Nathaniel Gleicher.

"They put substantial effort into creating elaborate fictitious personas, trying to make fake accounts look as real as possible," Gleicher said while briefing reporters.

The group posted on topics "including social and racial justice in the US and UK, NATO and EU [European Union] politics, alleged Western war crimes and corruption, environmental issues, the founder of Wikileaks, tensions between Israel and Palestine, the coronavirus pandemic, criticism of fracking, French influence in Africa, the [Joe] Biden-[Kamala] Harris campaign, QAnon, President Trump and his policies, and the US military policies in Africa," Facebook said.

Group operators generated profile photos using computer software to make them appear more realistic and recruited unwitting freelance writers to write material for online publication, according to Facebook.

Reportedly, the operators crafted the Facebook pages to drive viewers to websites of the social network and were working diligently to get approval to run targeted ads.

"It follows a steady pattern where particularly Russian actors have gotten better at hiding who they are, but their impact is smaller and smaller, and they are getting caught earlier," Gleicher said.

"These actors are caught between a rock and hard place: run a large network that gets caught quickly or run a small network that has limited reach."

New wrinkle in Russian tactics

The IRA hired real Americans to write for its website, called Peace Data.

The group advertised for writers on an online job board, according to one American freelancer who wrote for Peace Data, as reported by the New York Times.

The writer said he answered the job ad with some links to his recent work and received an email response immediately asking him to submit new articles on any theme of his choosing.

In his earlier work, the writer had frequently challenged whether Biden, the Democratic Party candidate for US president, deserved the vote of left-wing Americans.

The website bills itself as a "global news organisation".

Twitter September 1 said that it had suspended five accounts associated with Peace Data for "platform manipulation that we can reliably attribute to Russian state actors", a spokesman said.

This week's actions follow a long history of Russian disinformation attempts on Facebook.

In May, Facebook purged scores of Russia-based social-media accounts belonging to networks running influence campaigns that were taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic.

Facebook in February said it purged dozens of accounts linked to Russian military intelligence.

Last October, the company said it had taken down a number of accounts tied to Russia whose owners were attempting to meddle in the 2020 US presidential elections.

In May 2019, 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.

In March 2019, the company removed more than 2,600 pages, groups and accounts in Russia that engaged in co-ordinated malign influence on Facebook and Instagram.

In April 2018, Facebook announced the shutdown of hundreds of Facebook and Instagram accounts connected to the IRA troll factory.

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By increasing disinformation Russia is going to make Central Asian countries more dependent. And that is a huge threat to our independence.

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Finally they started paying attention to Russian propaganda and fighting it. But the best defence is a good offence. A wave of protests has started in Russia. It began in Khabarovsk. And American special services need to seize this opportunity while Putin's popularity is in free fall.

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