Facebook has suspended a network of over 100 pages, 78 groups, 453 Facebook accounts, and 107 Instagram accounts being used to spread malicious propaganda. Facebook attributed this network to individuals in Pakistan.
Facebook took down a network of fake accounts and pages associated with Pakistani operatives that was using the social media platform to spread malicious propaganda.
On August 31, 2020, Facebook suspended 103 pages, 78 groups, 453 Facebook accounts, and 107 Instagram accounts for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behaviour. Facebook attributed this network to individuals in Pakistan.
“We found this network as part of our internal investigation into suspected coordinated inauthentic behavior in the region,” said Facebook.
In its takedown report, Facebook said, “In August, we removed three networks of accounts, pages and groups. Two of them — from Russia and the US — targeted people outside of their country, and another from Pakistan focused on both domestic audiences in Pakistan and also in India. We have shared information about our findings with law enforcement, policymakers and industry partners.”
Facebook shares info with Stanford Internet Observatory
Facebook shared a portion of this network with the Stanford Internet Observatory on August 28 and they broke down the reasons behind the suspension.
One of the lead researchers in a report titled ‘Reporting for Duty: How A Network of Pakistan-Based Accounts Leveraged Mass Reporting to Silence Critics’, Shelby Grossman said, “Today Facebook announced the suspension of a big network of accounts in Pakistan for coordinated inauthentic behavior. My Internet Observatory team analyzed the network before it came down. The most interesting part of the network? Mass reporting,”
Over the past three years, Facebook has shared findings about coordinated inauthentic behaviour (CIB) that they detect and remove from their platforms.
The Stanford Internet Observatory report says, “The network encouraged users to mass-report accounts that were critical of Islam and the Pakistani government, and in some cases accounts that were part of the Ahmadi religious community. The network also had messaging praising the Pakistani military, along with some Indian military fan pages and groups of unclear purpose.”ADVERTISEMENT
Shelby Grossman added, “The information operation component of the network praised the Pakistani military and government, and criticized Indian Prime Minister Modi and Pakistani social and religious groups, like the Ahmadi community.”
The key takeaways in the report are as follows:
>> Since May 2020, the suspended network coordinated mass reporting of Facebook and Instagram accounts that were perceived to be critical of Islam, critical of the Pakistani government and military, or linked to the Ahmadi religious minority. Accounts shared links that brought users directly to Facebook’s site to report a specific account or account photo. The network claimed over 200 successes, but we are unable to confirm whether these accounts were taken down due to reporting. Some accounts, such as those that had intentionally insulting fake names, were clearly in violation of Facebook’s identity policies.
>> The network used “Auto Reporter,” a Chrome extension to automate reporting. The creator of the extension said explicitly on Facebook that he created the product for “Accounts like anti-Islamic, anti-Pakistani or even groups and pages which is a great threat on social media.” The network and related users provided tutorials to create fake accounts for reporting and to quickly open many tabs to expedite reporting.
>> Many pages and groups posted Pakistani nationalist content, praising the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency) and ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. Posts also criticised India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, often mocking Modi’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
>> The network included several Indian Army fan pages and groups, which had primarily positive messaging about the Indian military and government. We are unclear what the objective of these entities was.
According to DFRLab, that network “represented a significant influence operation, apparently aimed at boosting support for the army inside Pakistan and boosting support for Pakistan abroad.” Additionally, reporting shows that Pakistani politicians work directly with prominent social media trolls to get pro-Pakistan hashtags trending on Twitter, according to the report.
The main tactic used was ‘Mass Reporting’. A prominent feature of this network was the coordinated reporting of Facebook and Instagram accounts that were seen as anti-Islamic or “critical” of Pakistan.
“The main theme across the pages and groups was Pakistani nationalist content: content praising the military and ISI, and supporting Pakistan in its rivalry with India,” said the report.
The themes were as follows: Pro-Pakistan government/military content, anti-BJP/Modi content, and messaging bolstering the Khalistan movement.
|Networks Removed in August 2020:|
|1. Russia: We removed a small network of 13 Facebook accounts and two Pages linked to individuals associated with past activity by the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA). This activity focused primarily on the US, UK, Algeria and Egypt, in addition to other English-speaking countries and countries in the Middle East and North Africa. We began this investigation based on information about this network’s off-platform activity from the FBI. Our internal investigation revealed the full scope of this network on Facebook.|
|2. US: We removed 55 Facebook accounts, 42 pages and 36 Instagram accounts linked to US-based strategic communications firm CLS Strategies. This network focused primarily on Venezuela and also on Mexico and Bolivia. We found this activity as part of our proactive investigation into suspected coordinated inauthentic behavior in the region.|
|3. Pakistan: We removed 453 Facebook accounts, 103 Pages, 78 Groups and 107 Instagram accounts operated from Pakistan and focused on Pakistan and India. We found this network as part of our internal investigation into suspected coordinated inauthentic behavior in the region.|
How the propaganda machinery worksADVERTISEMENT
The report has pulled out pages and accounts that have been blocked to explain how the propaganda machinery works.
In India’s case, “We observed content critical of the BJP, Modi, and the Indian Army, and messaging that supported the Khalistan movement. Posts mocked Modi’s handling of Covid-19, with statements such as, “You cannot find India’s name in the top 40 coronavirus safety countries. Work doesn’t happen just by talking,” the report stated.
Facebook has primarily taken down a network of social media accounts originating in Pakistan that posted Pakistani nationalist messages, criticised the Indian government and targeted minorities such as the Ahmadi community of Pakistan.