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Facebook shuts down hundreds of Russian-linked accounts

The company said the the Internet Research Agency used "complex networks of inauthentic accounts to deceive and manipulate people."

An illustration picture taken through a magnifying glass on March 28, 2018 in Moscow shows the icon for the social networking app Facebook on a smart phone screen.
(CREDIT: MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)
An illustration picture taken through a magnifying glass on March 28, 2018 in Moscow shows the icon for the social networking app Facebook on a smart phone screen. (CREDIT: MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

In the latest development in its battles against misinformation and fake news, Facebook said that they have removed more than 270 accounts and pages controlled by the notorious Russian “troll farm”, the Internet Research Agency (IRA).

The company announced on Tuesday that it had taken down 65 Instagram and 70 Facebook accounts, as well as 138 Facebook pages. The content reportedly targeted Russian-speaking Facebook users in countries neighboring Russia, like Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine. None of the pages had violated Facebook’s terms of service, but were removed because of the IRA’s long history of fraud on Facebook.

“The IRA has repeatedly used complex networks of inauthentic accounts to deceive and manipulate people who use Facebook, including before, during and after the 2016 presidential election,” Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos said in a statement. “It’s why we don’t want them on Facebook.”

The St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency has been a persistent part of Russian attempts to sow disinformation abroad and meddle in the 2016 election. In February, an indictment by special counsel Robert Mueller accused the IRA of “interference operations targeting the United States”. The IRA has also fueled the efforts of American secessionists and fake black activist accounts. Their misinformation campaigns weren’t always sophisticated, but they were successful at fostering division.

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Announcing the removal of the latest accounts on Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg struck an unusually forceful tone. “This Russian agency has repeatedly acted deceptively and tried to manipulate people in the US, Europe, and Russia,” he said. “Organizations like the IRA are sophisticated adversaries who are constantly evolving, but we’ll keep improving our techniques to stay ahead.”

Since the scope of Russian social media meddling in the 2016 election became clear last year, Facebook has found itself under the harsh glare of lawmakers. But after last month’s reports about Cambridge Analytica — a dodgy data analytics firm that harvested private Facebook data to help microtarget voters with highly-customized political ads — anger and calls for regulation have reached fever pitch both from politicians and the public.

Facebook hasn’t helped itself by repeatedly underestimating the amount of Americans exposed to Russia’s misinformation efforts. When Facebook announced last September that it would be handing over 3,000 Russia-linked ads to Congress, Zuckerberg stressed that the amount of “problematic content” was “relatively small.” In October, Facebook said that around 10 million Americans had been exposed to the ads. Then those numbers rose to 70 million, before Facebook announced that it was actually 126 million.

Facebook has taken some positive steps to combat misinformation. Last week, the company announced that it would make political advertisers in the United States verify that they were legitimate and located within the country. The policy will be rolled out in time for the U.S. midterm elections.

“There’s a lot of hard work that we need to do to make it harder for nation-states like Russia to do election interference,” Zuckerberg told CNN last month, in wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. “To make it so that trolls and other folks can’t spread fake news, but we can get in front of this.”