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Facebook derails Kremlin effort to mislead protesters in Russia

By Caravanserai and AFP

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Russian security forces block protesters during a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Saint Petersburg on January 31, 2021. [Olga MALTSEVA / AFP]

SAN FRANCISCO -- Facebook on Wednesday (March 3) said it derailed a deceptive campaign to use hundreds of bogus Instagram accounts to mislead Russians protesting the arrest of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

Facebook, which owns Instagram, said a network of accounts used hashtag and location "poisoning" typically associated with spam or financial scams to drown out posts by protesters.

The tactic involves co-opting hashtags being used as social media markers for hot topics, in this case protests, by unleashing torrents of posts bearing the labels.

"If you have a hashtag that an activist movement is using to organise itself and you fill it with random, unrelated content, you make it less effective," said Facebook global threat disruption lead David Agranovich.

"Also, we saw them trying to fill it actually with content that might suppress people or convince people not to protest."

Some of the location tags marked sites where protesters planned to gather in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Facebook said.

Accounts in the network used celebrity photos or profile photos evidently generated automatically by software, and posts included claims that protests were being criticised by a TikTok star and that many children were attending rallies, the report detailed.

Those orchestrating the campaign relied on recently created accounts to post "large volumes of irrelevant or critical content with particular hashtags and location tags to drown out relevant information and redirect the conversation", said Facebook.

Some of the Instagram posts suggested that Russians contracted COVID-19 and died as a result of attending protests, according to samples provided by Facebook, which owns the image-centric service.

The bogus network also "poisoned" hashtags with ads for women's clothing or handbags, Facebook reported.

Facebook's automated systems detected and disabled 530 Instagram accounts being used in the campaign, said the US-based social network.

Fifty-five thousand users followed one or more of the Instagram accounts, said Facebook.

While the deceptive activity was traced only to "individuals operating within Russia", according to Agranovich, all signs point to the Kremlin.

The Russian regime Thursday demanded an explanation from Facebook.

Navalny used Instagram on Wednesday to quip that "everything is fine" and make jokes about prison life in his first message from a detention centre outside Moscow.

President Vladimir Putin's most prominent critic said he was being held in the Kolchugino detention centre in the Vladimir region northeast of Moscow.

Navalny was sentenced last month to two and a half years in a penal colony for breaching parole terms while in Germany recovering from a near-fatal Novichok poisoning.

Recent protests have rocked Putin's regime, and many see him as more vulnerable now than ever before.

Nothing new

This week's revelations of Kremlin manipulation of social media platforms follow years of similar news.

Last September, Facebook said it uncovered a budding Kremlin-linked campaign to fuel political chaos in the United States, removing 13 accounts and two pages posing as journalists and targeting left-wing progressives violating its policy against "foreign interference".

Reportedly, the operators crafted the Facebook pages to drive viewers to websites of the social network and diligently sought 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," said Facebook head of security policy Nathaniel Gleicher at the time.

Last 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 2020 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 Internet Research Agency troll factory in Saint Petersburg.

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We must support those protesting against Putin's dictatorship.

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