Facebook Inc has announced it removed hundreds of pages, groups and accounts on its platforms for “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” linked to three operations in Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Nigeria.
The operation in Indonesia involved a network of over 100 fake accounts on Facebook and Instagram posting content in English and Indonesian either in support or criticising the West Papua independence movement, which is active in the country’s restive easternmost region of Papua.
“This was a network of pages designed to appear like local media organisations and advocacy organisations,” said David Agranovitch, Facebook’s Global Lead for Threat Disruption.
He told Reuters that his team, which had been monitoring Indonesia in light of increasing tensions in Papua, had tracked the false accounts, which would disseminate content, buy ads, and drive people to other sites, to an Indonesian media firm called InsightID.
Reuters was not immediately able to reach the firm for comment.
There has been a spike in protests and unrest since late August in Papua, which suffered some of its worst bloodsheds in decades in September, with 33 people killed and scores injured.
Researchers had independently warned in September that there had been a rise of fake Twitter and Facebook accounts on Papua, with some of the fake accounts posting pro-government content.
Agranovitch said Facebook also removed fake accounts related to two other unconnected networks in the Middle East and Africa.
One, according to Facebook, was based out of Egypt but targeted the rest of the region by posting content in support of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, as well as criticism of Qatar, Iran, Turkey and Yemen’s separatist movement.
The executive said this operation used fake accounts “to masquerade as local media organisations in a variety of those countries … and amplify the content they were posting”.
According to Agranovitch, Facebook found evidence some of the accounts had been purchased, with regular changing ownerships, as well as deep links to Egyptian newspaper El Fagr, “which is known for its sensationalistic content”.
As a result of the investigation, Facebook has also removed El Fagr’s official media pages from its platforms, he said.
Reuters was not able to immediately contact El Fagr.
Facebook said the third network, which it tracked to three marketing firms in the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Nigeria, involved fake accounts which spread on content on topics like UAE’s activity in Yemen and the Iran nuclear deal.
The social media giant has recently been cracking down on such accounts after coming under fire in the last few years for its self-admitted sluggishness in developing tools to combat extremist content and propaganda operations.
Earlier this year, it removed accounts from Iraq, Ukraine, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Thailand, Honduras and Israel.
We removed multiple Pages, Groups and accounts that were involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior on Facebook and Instagram. We found three separate operations: one of which originated in the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Nigeria, and the other two in Indonesia and Egypt. These three campaigns we removed were unconnected, but both created networks of accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing. We have shared information about our findings with industry partners.
We’re constantly working to detect and stop this type of activity because we don’t want our services to be used to manipulate people. We’re taking down these Pages, Groups and accounts based on their behavior, not the content they posted. In each of these cases, the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves, and that was the basis for our action.
We are making progress rooting out this abuse, but as we’ve said before, it’s an ongoing challenge. We’re committed to continually improving to stay ahead. That means building better technology, hiring more people and working closer with law enforcement, security experts and other companies.
What We’ve Found So Far
We removed 211 Facebook accounts, 107 Pages, 43 Groups and 87 Instagram accounts for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior that originated in the UAE, Egypt and Nigeria. There were multiple sets of activity, each localized for a specific country or region, primarily in the Middle East and Africa, and some in Europe, North and South America, South Asia and East Asia, and Australia. The people behind this network used fake accounts – some of which had already been disabled by our automated systems — to run Pages, post in Groups, disseminate their content and artificially increase engagement. They managed Pages — some of which changed names over time — sharing local news in targeted countries and promoting content about UAE. The Page admins and account owners primarily posted videos, photos and web links related to local events and issues in a particular country, and some content on topics including elections and candidates; UAE’s activity in Yemen; the first Emirati astronaut; criticism of Qatar, Turkey, and Iran; the Iran nuclear deal, and criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to three marketing firms — Charles Communications in UAE, MintReach in Nigeria and Flexell in Egypt.
- Presence on Facebook and Instagram: 211 Facebook accounts, 107 Pages, 43 Groups and 87 Instagram accounts.
- Followers: Less than 1.4 million accounts followed one or more of these Pages, less than 100 accounts joined one or more of the Groups and less than 70,000 accounts followed at least one of these Instagram accounts.
- Advertising: Less than $150,000 spent on Facebook ads paid for primarily in US dollars, Emirati dirham and Indian rupee.
We identified these accounts as part of our follow-on investigation into the coordinated inauthentic behavior in the region we had previously removed.