FILE - In this March 29, 2018, file photo, the logo for Facebook appears on screens in New York's Times Square. Facebook announced Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019, it would invest $300 million over three years in news initiatives with an emphasis in local coverage. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

Facebook shuts hundreds of Russia-linked pages, accounts

January 17, 2019 - 8:06 am

LONDON (AP) — Facebook said Thursday it removed hundreds of Russia-linked pages, groups and accounts that it says were part of two big disinformation operations, in its latest effort to fight fake news.

The social media company said it took action after finding two networks "that engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior" on its Facebook and Instagram platforms.

Facebook's head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, said in a blog post that one network operated in countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the Baltics, Central Asia and the Caucasus. The other focused on Ukraine.

The people running the accounts represented themselves as independent news sources and posted on topics like anti-NATO sentiment and protest movements.

"We didn't find any links between these operations, but they used similar tactics by creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing," Gleicher said.

Gleicher said one network of 364 pages and accounts was linked to employees of Sputnik, a Russian state-run English-language news site. About 790,000 accounts followed one or more of the network's pages. The operation spent about $135,000 over six years for Facebook advertisements, which it paid for in euros, rubles and dollars. The most recent ad ran in January.

Sputnik did not reply to an emailed request for comment, but it criticized Facebook in a statement quoted by the Russian state-owned RIA Novosti news agency.

"This decision is clearly political. This is tantamount to censorship," the statement said, adding that Facebook blocked the accounts of seven of its bureaus in former Soviet republics. "Sputnik bureaus work in the news, and they do their job well. If blocking is Facebook's only reaction to quality journalism, then we have no questions for them. But we still hope that reason will prevail."

Acting on a tip from U.S. law enforcement, Facebook shut another 148 pages, groups and accounts, including 41 on Instagram, that were part of a second network. Gleicher said Facebook "identified some technical overlap with Russia-based activity we saw prior to the U.S. midterm elections, including behavior that shared characteristics with previous Internet Research Agency activity."

The Internet Research Agency is a Russian troll farm indicted by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller for its actions aimed at influencing the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The disclosure is the latest in a series of fake account purges in recent months. Facebook has been stepping up its scrutiny after being criticized for its slow response to foreign attempts to influence the 2016 vote.

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Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.

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