Facebook accuses Russian news service of creating fake accounts

Facebook Inc. said it disrupted two campaigns run by fake accounts with links to Russia and its Sputnik news service as it continues to grapple with misinformation on its platform.

Facebook removed 289 pages and 75 accounts it says were engaged in inauthentic behavior in one of the operations. In a blog post Thursday by Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy, Facebook said around 790,000 accounts follow one or more of the pages, and $135,000 was spent on ads, which were paid for in euros, rubles, and U.S. dollars.

The pages were linked to employees of Moscow-based Sputnik, Facebook said. In a statement, a spokesperson for Sputnik said Facebook’s decision was “practically censorship.”

The social media company has been battling foreign influence on its site. Late last year Facebook said it took down some accounts ahead of the U.S. midterms that authorities told them might possibly be from the Russian Internet Research Agency — the same group that Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted for alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

The pages and accounts linked to Sputnik and were being represented as independent news pages, Gleicher said in an interview. The pages contained anti-NATO sentiment and encouraged protests. The first ad ran in 2013, the most recent this month. He said Facebook had also identified overlap with activity by the Internet Research Agency.

“We’re taking down these Pages and accounts based on their behavior, not the content they post,” Gleicher said in the blog post. “In 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.”

Sputnik, RT

Sputnik was founded in 2014 by Rossiya Segodnya, the country’s biggest state-sponsored news holding, which includes the RT cable channel. Sputnik operates online portals with reporting in about 30 languages. Its websites received 81 million visits in December, with 18 percent coming from Turkey and about 6 percent from the U.S., according to Similarweb.com.

The company said about $25,000 was spent on ads on Facebook and Instagram in that campaign, paid for in rubles. The first ad ran in January 2018, and the most recent ran in December. It said it asked law enforcement and local governments to follow up on the investigations.

Facebook has been building up its contacts with cybersecurity research firms and academic institutions since coming under fire from the U.S. government for allowing Russian interference in 2016.

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Facebook accuses Russian news service of creating fake accounts