Facebook says it’s catching Russian-linked fake accounts earlier

Facebook logo and padlock image on a phone screen.

Facebook has been pulling down fake accounts ahead of the US presidential election. 

Image by Pixabay/Illustration by CNET

Facebook said Tuesday that in August it removed more than a dozen fake accounts and pages, tied to an infamous Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency, that posted news stories. The network was on Facebook for about three months before the social media giant took down the fake accounts after receiving a tip from the FBI, a sign that the tech company and its partners are spotting Russian trolls quicker online.

Facebook removed 13 accounts and two pages linked to the Kremlin-backed Russian troll farm for misleading users about their identity and purpose. This network focused on the US, UK, Algeria and Egypt along with other countries where people speak English. About 5% of the English content targeted the US, posting news stories about President Donald Trump, the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon, and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ campaign to defeat Trump. Some of the accounts used fake profile pictures to pose as news editors and duped freelance journalists into writing stories for their website, Facebook said. Roughly 14,000 accounts followed one of these two pages. 

The Facebook page for PeaceData that described itself as a “global news organization” is no longer on the social network. More than 200 people followed this page. Twitter on Tuesday said it suspended five accounts tied to PeaceData and the group’s LinkedIn account is also no longer available. Still, the PeaceData website is still online, highlighting the challenges that come with combating a network that relies on multiple internet platforms. Twitter and Facebook said they’re blocking links to PeaceData’s website. PeaceData published more than 500 articles in English and 200 articles in Arabic between February and August, according to Graphika, which analyzed the network before Facebook removed the accounts and pages. 

“It presented the US as war-mongering and law-breaking abroad while being wracked by racism, COVID-19, and cutthroat capitalism at home,” Graphika said in a report released Tuesday. 

CNET reached out to several email addresses on Peace Data’s website but didn’t receive a response. 

Russia’s Internet Research Agency is known for using fake social media accounts to sow discord among Americans in the 2016 US presidential election. Revelations about this Russian troll farm didn’t surface until after the election was already over, sparking concerns about whether Facebook was doing enough to safeguard US elections. In March, Facebook and Twitter said they pulled down a network of Russian-linked fake accounts in Ghana that were created in 2019.

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The Russian-linked network of accounts that Facebook pulled in August was still in its early stages before the FBI tipped off the social network about their websites. 

“These actors get caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, who heads Facebook’s cybersecurity policy, in a press conference. “They can run a large noisy network that gets caught quickly, or they can work very hard to hide themselves, still get caught, and not get a lot of attention.”

While these bad actors might use platforms that don’t crack down on fake accounts, Gleicher said that pulling down these accounts on Facebook limits their reach. Facebook is the world’s largest social network, with more than 2.7 billion monthly active users.

Graphika said that the IRA used fake profile pictures generated through artificial intelligence and that this was the first time it’s seen these Russian trolls use this tactic. The network appeared to target progressive and left-wing users. 

Facebook also said Tuesday it removed more than 450 fake accounts that focused on Pakistan and India and more than 130 Facebook and Instagram accounts along with pages linked to a US communications firm that focused on Venezuela, Mexico and Bolivia. 

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