Facebook has, in four separate takedowns, removed several pages, groups and accounts from India and Pakistan for violating its policies and participating in inauthentic behaviour or spam. The social network has clarified that the takedowns were not because of the kind of content posted by these pages, but inauthentic behaviour and the bid to deceive users about their identity.
One set of pages, groups and accounts were linked to the IT cell of the Indian National Congress (INC), while another set of pages were linked to an IT firm called Silver Touch Technologies. The IT firm’s website says it is “empaneled with central government, various state governments and their supplementary programs for delivering IT solutions”, including the National Informatics Center (NIC), Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), Government of Uttar Pradesh.
In case of the pages from Pakistan, these were linked to employees of the Inter Services Public Relations Pakistan (ISPR), which is the media wing of the Pakistan military. The fourth set of takedowns were not linked to any particular political party, but rather individuals who were promoting spam and sharing malware links on the social network.
“We’re looking here for pages, groups that are designed to look independent, but are actually linked to an organisation or political party and trying to conceal or hide this link,” explained Nathaniel Gleicher, Head of Cybersecurity Policy, in a telephonic interaction with the indianexpress.com.
“These networks of pages, groups and accounts, which includes fake accounts were working to mislead people about who is behind those pages. For example, some of them would pretend to be a news page, but say run by a political party. Some of them worked in clusters, posting content on Instagram and WhatsApp accounts as well. Our team of investigators worked to understand and remove these clusters,” he added.
According to Gleicher, the goal is to make sure that people know about the misleading behaviour of these pages. “These takedowns are not because of the content or because of who is behind these assets. We don’t rely on content for the basis of determining this kind of behaviour,” he reiterated.
“In each case detailed below, the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves, and that was the basis for our action,” notes a detailed blog post from the company.
In India, Facebook said it removed 687 pages and accounts, which it said were linked to individuals associated with an IT Cell of the Indian National Congress (INC). Gleicher said they later reached out to the Congress and explained to them why this behaviour was problematic and violative of the social network’s policies.
This is to clarify no official pages run by INC have been taken down. Additionally, all pages run by our verified volunteers are also unaffected.
In the mean time, we are awaiting a response from Facebook to provide us a list of all pages/accounts that they have taken down.
— Congress (@INCIndia) April 1, 2019
Reacting to the Facebook blog, Indian National Congress (INC) tweeted: “This is to clarify no official pages run by INC have been taken down. Additionally, all pages run by our verified volunteers are also unaffected. In the meantime, we are awaiting a response from Facebook to provide us a list of all pages/accounts that they have taken down.”
In total, Facebook says there were 138 pages and 549 Facebook accounts involved in this particular takedown and around 206,000 accounts followed one or more of these pages. The pages often posted content around topics like upcoming elections, candidate views, the INC and criticism of political opponents including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Pages mentioned are Jo Feku, ‘Baba Bhrashtachari’ and content shared included asking voters to choose wisely and pick the Congress party in the elections.
However, the individuals running these accounts tried to conceal their identity and often used fake accounts to disseminate the content. This network spent around $39,000 for ads on Facebook, paid for in Indian rupees.
“Today a very historical development has taken place”, Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told reporters, according to ANI. Owners of those accounts were not known. It was fake. It was used to spread falsehood against Narendra Modi govt,” he said.
Union Minister RS Prasad on ‘Facebook removing 687 pages,accounts linked to Congress party ahead of polls’: Today a very historical development has taken place. Owners of those accounts were not known. It was fake. It was used to spread falsehood against Narendra Modi govt. pic.twitter.com/IMSPQ8En5A
— ANI (@ANI) April 1, 2019
Pakistan pages linked to Pakistan military employees
Facebook said it removed 103 pages, groups and accounts from Pakistan for this kind of “inauthentic behaviour on Facebook and Instagram”. Some of content posted by these pages, groups included local and political news around topics like the Indian government, news about Kashmir, etc. Pages listed in the blog are ‘Halka PhulKa’, ‘Kashmir for Kashmiris’ and Painter’s Palette. One of the posts shared praised Pakistan PM Imran Khan for releasing Wing Commander Abhinandan.
Facebook says while the creators behind this network tried to conceal their identities, its investigation found that several of the accounts were linked to employees of the ISPR (Inter-Service Public Relations) of the Pakistani military.
A total 24 pages, 57 Facebook accounts, seven groups and 15 Instagram accounts were part of this Pakistan network. More than one page had about 2.8 million accounts following them, while some of the groups had more than 4,700 members. The Pakistan-based network spent around $1,100 for ads on Facebook paid, which was paid in US dollars and Pakistani rupees, showed the investigation.
Facebook said it also removed 15 pages, groups and accounts for this kind of behaviour and found it was linked to IT firm Silver Touch. Facebook said the content shared on this one page would post on topics like the Indian government, the upcoming elections, the BJP and alleged misconduct of political opponents, including the INC. The page removed here was The India Eye, which had recently posted content praising the PM for Mission Shakti, while berating the UPA government. We reached out to Silver Touch Technologies, but the contact number on the website was not responsive.
In this set, there was just one Facebook page, 12 Facebook accounts, one group and one Instagram account. However, The India Eye had nearly 2.6 million followers, which is much larger compared to the pages linked to the other sets. The group had 15,000 members, while the Instagram account had 30,000 followers. The group spent around $70,000 in ads.
Coming to the fourth set, Facebook revealed that it removed 227 Pages and 94 accounts in India for violating policies against spam and misrepresentation and that this takedown not part of one coordinated operation.
“We routinely remove accounts and Pages that engage in this type of harmful, often financially-motivated, behaviour — like ads for fraudulent products or weight loss “remedies.” The people behind this behavior create Pages using fake accounts or multiple accounts with the same names,” says the Facebook blog.
Asked what eventually prompted Facebook to takedown these networks, given some of them have existed for a while, Gleicher said they relied on technical indicators to detect the tactics of misdirection and spam. “We have automated systems running to detect and remove fake accounts. So one part of our work was figuring out concealed identities, which many of these page relied on in order to misrepresent themselves to the audience,” he added.
Facebook has said that it relies on a global team of operations to detect this kind of behaviour, though it has local and cultural experts as well. However, the company said that detection of such behaviour was on an ongoing work. Where the analysis of the content shared by these pages goes, Facebook said this was being done by American think tank The Atlantic Council, which would release its own separate report on this issue.
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