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Facebook removes disinformation networks linked to political actors in US, Myanmar, Azerbaijan

Facebook removed four networks of coordinated inauthentic behaviour, which were linked to politically affiliated actors in the US, Myanmar, Nigeria, and Azerbaijan, in the first eight days of October. Two of these networks primarily relied on posts by real people instead of automated bots to commenting on posts by media organisations and public figures to create the impression of widespread support of their narratives.

In Myanmar, at least 70 accounts with links to the military were removed. In USA, a 300-strong network connected to conservative groups were removed. Networks originating and targeting domestic audiences in Azerbaijan and Nigeria were also removed.

Conservative-backed marketing firm targeted US audience

The modus operandi: Using stock images as profile photos, these fake accounts posed as American conservatives to comment on news articles shared by media houses and public figures. Facebook’s investigation, which it started after reporting by the Washington Post, linked this network to American marketing firm Rally Forge, working on behalf of Turning Point USA and Inclusive Conservation Group. Rally Forge has entirely been banned from Facebook.

  • The accounts originated in the US and focused primarily on domestic US audiences and also on Kenya and Botswana.

Turning Point USA is a popular pro-Trump youth activist group. Facebook has previously shut down accounts run by an affiliate group of Turning Point USA for paying teenagers to post identical posts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter discrediting presidential contender Joe Biden, Anthony Fauci, among other things.

What the network posted about: The topics revolved around the US midterms elections of 2018 and 2020 Presidential elections, COVID-19, sport hunting in the US and Kenya, criticism of the Democratic party and presidential candidate Joe Biden, and praise of President Trump and the Republican party. Recent comments focused on pages of the the Washington Post, Fox News, MSNBC, CNN and The New York Times. It also showed some links to on-platform activity by Turning Point USA.

The network become active ahead of the 2018 mid-term elections, and became dormant until June 2020.

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  • The most recent activity included creating what we call “thinly veiled personas” whose names were slight variations of the names of the people behind them and whose “sole activity on our platform was associated with this deceptive campaign”.

Network removal in numbers

  • Accounts removed: 200 Facebook accounts, 55 Pages and 76 Instagram accounts
  • Followers: 373,000 accounts at least one of the Pages, and around 22,000 people followed at least one of the Instagram accounts.
  • Advertising: $973,000 spent on Facebook and Instagram ads paid for in US dollars, including advertising by both inauthentic and authentic accounts removed as part of this network.

Myanmar military linked accounts criticised Suu Kyi, local Covid response

Facebook’s investigation into this network, which began after local public reporting about “some elements of this activity”, found links to the members of the Myanmar military (even though the network attempted to conceal their identities and coordination). It’s worth noting that Myanmar, where Facebook is a crucial communications platform, is due to hold its second election in its history in November.

The modus operandi: Clusters of this activity relied on fake, duplicate and authentic accounts to post content, evade enforcement and removal, manage pages and drive people to off-platform websites including military-controlled media domains.

  • These accounts often used stock female profile photos and photos of celebrities and social media influencers.

What the network posted about: The individuals behind this network posted primarily in Burmese about local news and current events about military activities, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (founded by the military junta), local COVID-19 response, criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi, and the National League for Democracy, the political party she heads, as well as a small number of anti-Rohingya posts.

Network removal in numbers: 

  • Extent: 17 Pages, 50 Facebook accounts and 6 accounts on Instagram.
  • Following: 538,000 accounts followed at least one Facebook page, and 800 accounts at least one Instagram account.
  • Advertising: $1,850 spent on Facebook ads paid for in US dollars.

Azerbaijan: Pro-govt comments on media pages

A network linked to the Youth Union wing of the New Azerbaijani Party engaged locals to manage Pages with “the sole purpose of leaving supportive and critical commentary” with the objective of creating the impression of wide-spread support of some views.

  • These comments were posted on pages of international and local media and public figures, from both the ruling party and opposition in Azerbaijan.
  • Most of the engagement with the comments also seemed to be from within the network as well.

The modus operandi: The network used fake accounts relying on authentic accounts to create pages designed to look like user profiles, using stock images and false names to “comment and artificially boost the popularity of particular pro-government content”.

What the network posted about: This network posted primarily in Azerbaijani, and also in Russian and English. Their comments touched upon local and regional news and events, politics, government policies, tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Armenia’s actions during past escalations in Nagorno-Karabakh territory (a defacto independent state within Azerbaijan that has an Armenian ethnic majority), praise of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev and the New Azerbaijani Party, criticism of the opposition party and leaders accusing them of treason, and denials of human rights abuse allegations in Azerbaijan.

Network removal in numbers:

  • Extent: 589 Facebook accounts, 7,906 Facebook Pages and 447 Instagram accounts
  • Followers: 33,000 accounts followed at least one of the Facebook pages, 242,500 accounts followed at least one Instagram account
  • Advertising: $6,600 spent on Facebook ads paid for primarily in US dollars

Network linked to Islamic movement removed in Nigeria

Using fake and duplicate accounts to manage groups and pages that posed as independent media outlets, to take people to websites off of Facebook and Instagram. This network was linked to the Islamic movement in Nigeria.

The modus operandi: Many accounts used stock images and photos of Ibrahim Zakzaky, the head of Nigeria’s Islamic Movement (IMN), Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini and of Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani, who was killed by a targeted US drone strike. This network amplified particular hashtags, including #FreeZakzaky, after Zakzakay’s arrest.

What the network posted about: The page admins and account owners posted primarily in Hausa, and also in English and Arabic about local news and events including IMN being a peaceful movement, protests across Nigeria, and criticism of the Nigerian armed forces, the police, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, and the ban of IMN.

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Network removal in numbers

  • Extent: 79 Facebook accounts, 47 Pages, 93 Groups and 48 Instagram accounts.
  • Followers: Around 82,000 accounts followed one or more of these Pages, about 131,500 accounts joined at least one of these Groups, and around 25,000 people followed one or more of these Instagram accounts.
  • Advertising: Less than $8,500 spent on Facebook and Instagram ads paid for primarily in US dollars.

60 assets linked to United Russia Party removed

Facebook removed around 60 assets in Russia that focused on domestic activity, and was linked to individuals associated with the ruling United Russia party. The activity was discovered after information from Twitter about the network’s off-platform activity.

  • Extent: 40 Facebook accounts, 17 Pages, 1 Group and 6 Instagram accounts in Russia.

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