Facebook has removed a network of over 700 accounts, pages, and groups, including Instagram accounts from Pakistan that leveraged Facebook’s own reporting tools to get anti-Islamic and content critical of the Pakistani government removed. Alongside, the network also posted content critical of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Indian Army, and about how Modi has handled the coronavirus pandemic. Facebook said the posts were in Urdu, Hindi, English, and Punjabi and seems to have primarily targeted Pakistanis and Indians.
The network was engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”, which Facebook has been investigating for a few years now.
Chrome extension used to speed up mass reporting of anti-Islamic, anti-Pak content
Troll armies on these networks pushed content on groups and pages encouraging users to report up to 80 profiles at a time, “with tips on how to do this quickly, and direct links to the reporting sites”. One of the groups said their aim was “complete elimination of all blasphemous prophets, saints, companions, and other enemies of Islam”. These observations were made by the Stanford Internet Observatory, which studied the activity of over 370 of the removed accounts, pages, and groups. Facebook gave the Observatory access to 283 profiles and 96 Instagram accounts.
Another group encouraged users to post links of “any anti-Islam or anti-Pakistan” page, groups, or accounts, per the Observatory. The admins of the groups would then greenlight the posts and proceed to get them mass reported and taken down. The network encouraged people to use fake accounts to report such content, and even assisted them with tutorials on how to create fake accounts.
- Human rights activist targeted: The network targeted the account of Pakistani human rights activist Mohammad Jibran Nasir and an Ahmadi Muslim association account. Neither account was actually suspended and are currently live. Ahmadi Muslims a religously persecuted Muslim community of Pakistan that are considered non-Muslims in Pakistan and other Muslim-majority nations.
- Motive seems to be pro-Pakistan and pro-Islam feelings: According to the Stanford Internet Observatory, people who engaged with the network and actually got accounts removed do not seem to have received any concrete benefit, but seem to have done it out of feelings of patriotism and service to Islam.
- 200 profiles removed: According to the Stanford Internet Observatory, which studied a majority of the 700 removals, 208 profiles that the network targeted are currently down, although this could have been because the profiles themselves seem to fake.
- Chrome extension to automate reporting: It’s worth noting that the network used a Chrome extension to speed up mass reporting. Auto Reporter, which has over 2,000 users, generated TinyURL links for specific accounts (also pages ad groups) which would let users report them with a single click. Developed by a Pakistani, the Chrome extension was “explicitly marketed” to get anti-Islam and anti-Pakistan accounts suspended. “An additional feature advertised in the Chrome Web Store description is the ability to directly reporting links from the Pakistan Cyber Defense server,” the Standford’s analysis said.
Content praising Pakistan, and critical of Modi, Indian Army
Apart from mass reporting of content, the network has messages lauding the Pakistani military and government, the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Party, and Pakistani intelligency agency ISI, and critical of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. Content included posts critical of PM Modi, the BJP, the Indian Army, and content supporting the Khalistan movement.
A “Khalistan zindabad” page paid homage of the martyrs of the Khalistan movement. Posts also mocked Modi and his handling of the pandemic. One of the groups, “Khalistan zindabad”, was created as early as 2012.
Network reach: the numbers
- Removed: 453 Facebook accounts, 103 Pages, 78 Groups and 107 Instagram
- Following: 70,000 accounts followed at least one of the Pages and 1.1 million accounts were members of the groups.
- Pages: One page had 30,000 followers, another had 19,000 followers, but most had fewer than a thousand followers.
- Forty-three out of the 66 shared with the Observatory were private, which made assessing their activity more difficult
The more frequently a page posted, the more interaction it saw. Mujahid Markhor made 807 posts, and received over 200 likes, reactions, shares, and comments on each post. The most popular Group was the “Indian Peramiltry Force [sic]”, which was created in late 2018 and had more than 300,000 members.