Facebook and Twitter shut down Russian disinformation network
Facebook says it has shut down a network of accounts linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) “troll farm”. Twitter says that it has also closed down several accounts linked to the network. According to Facebook, the operation was in its early days of audience-building and was based around a left-leaning news website in English and Arabic. Despite fears the IRA might be using the network to attempt to influence the US election, only a small portion of its output was aimed at the United States.
What did the social media companies say?
In its monthly security report on coordinated inauthentic behaviour, Facebook said that one of the three networks it targeted in August centred on the Saint Petersburg-based IRA, saying that they had caught it early in its operations. “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,” the Facebook report said. The IRA was one of three Russian companies and 13 people indicted by the US Department of Justice as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US election campaign.
Twitter said that it had “suspended five Twitter accounts for platform manipulation that we can reliably attribute to Russian state actors”. It went on to say that the accounts were “low quality and spammy” and achieved little impact with users. The website linked with the accounts – PeaceData – would be blocked from being shared on the service.
The PeaceData connection
The Russian operation centred around a left-leaning news website called PeaceData, which claims to report on issue that are “usually untold or kept hidden from the general public”. Its operations were largely focused on the US, the UK, Algeria and Egypt. However, only about 5 per cent of the website’s content was aimed at the US election.
Most notable about the operation, says analyst Ben Nimmo of Graphika, was the fact that it employed a number of unwitting freelancers to provide content, using well-known freelancing websites such as Upwork and Guru. This would give its contents a more authentic feel by using native speakers with fewer language errors, but widens the number of “witnesses” to its activities, he says. Further, analysis of PeaceData’s “About” page – which is now inaccessible – suggests that the site’s staff photos were avatars created using artificial intelligence. “The personas that the network created masqueraded as left-wing journalists and editors,” Graphika’s analysis said.
PeaceData’s main aim appears to be to influence left-leaning readers toward issues concerning human rights, conflict and abuse of power. It has a strong anti-authority editorial slant, and could be an attempt to steer readers away from centrist politics. A large “donate” button on the PeaceData page no longer works, and a link to its Facebook page now tells readers that “This content isn’t available at the moment”.
How did PeaceData and IRA respond?
In response to the Facebook and Twitter takedowns of its social media networking, the Peacedata website said that the accusations of a Russian link are “an ugly lie”. “Corporate media and their puppet masters want to destroy our journalism and shut us up forever,” it complained. Also taking the news badly is RIA FAN, the St Petersburg-based news agency which is seen as being part of the IRA troll operation. A report on the agency’s website said the Facebook and Twitter actions were the result of “anti-Russian hysteria”, the go-to protest from the Russian establishment whenever it is accused of meddling in the West’s affairs. “There is no real evidence and no real connection. This is another ‘witch hunt’… Even if there are no traces of Russia, they will still blame Russia,” RIA FAN quoted a political strategist as saying.
Why is this important?
Although the Russian-backed network was small with a limited following and influence, the take-down marks a victory for social media companies against inauthentic behaviour. Both Twitter and Facebook have been accused of acting too slowly against disinformation, but these actions show them moving quickly to dismantle an inauthentic network in the early stages of its development. It also marks close cooperation between social media organisations and law enforcement agencies – both Twitter and Facebook thanked the FBI and its Foreign Influence Task Force for information about the Russian network and its activities. The PeaceData network, Facebook says, is the 100th such network they have blocked since 2017. Despite this action, the Internet Research Agency’s disinformation operations are likely to continue.