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Facebook takes sweeping action against networks in Pakistan, India for 'coordinated inauthentic behaviour'

Shares details on "separate, unconnected" takedowns in Pakistan and India.
Updated Apr 02, 2019 10:05am

Facebook has removed 712 accounts and 390 pages in India and Pakistan because of “inauthentic behaviour” and spamming, it said on Monday.

The social media giant — which shared details on "four separate, distinct and unconnected" takedowns linked to both Pakistan and India — said it had removed the pages, accounts and groups set up by the networks "for violating Facebook's policies on coordinated inauthentic behaviour or spam".

  • Removes 103 pages, groups and accounts on both Facebook and Instagram as part of a network that originated in Pakistan
  • Removes 687 pages and accounts linked to individuals associated with an IT Cell of the Indian National Congress
  • Removes 15 Facebook pages, groups and accounts in India linked to individuals associated with Indian IT firm, Silver Touch
  • Removes 321 pages and accounts in India that have broken Facebook rules against spam

"Today we removed 103 pages, groups and accounts for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behaviour on Facebook and Instagram as part of a network that originated in Pakistan," said a statement issued by Nathaniel Gleicher, the company’s head of Cybersecurity Policy, on the investigation.

"Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found that it was linked to employees of the ISPR of the Pakistani military," said the statement.

Dawn.com has reached out to ISPR for comment.

A sample of the content posted by some of the pages discovered by the investigation. ─ Photo courtesy Facebook
A sample of the content posted by some of the pages discovered by the investigation. ─ Photo courtesy Facebook

"The takedown is because there is this network of fake accounts that they are using to conceal their identity and make these pages look independent, when in fact they are not," Gleicher told Dawn.com. "These pages, groups and accounts represent themselves as independent but in fact, are part of a coordinated operation."

He added that Facebook could not say whether the activity was directed by the organisation or the employees were acting on their own.

"There were multiple employees engaged in this," he said, adding that Facebook is "highly confident" of the identity of the people involved.

'It's about behaviour, not content'

Gleicher clarified that Facebook was removing accounts based on their behaviour, not the content they posted.

The investigation found that the network in Pakistan was spread across 24 pages on Facebook and Instagram, 57 Facebook accounts, seven Facebook groups, and 15 Instagram accounts.

"The individuals behind this activity used fake accounts to operate military fan pages; general Pakistani interest pages; Kashmir community pages; and hobby and news pages. They also frequently posted about local and political news including topics like the Indian government, political leaders, and military," the statement said, sharing the following details:

  • Followers: About 2.8 million accounts followed one or more of these Pages, about 4,700 accounts joined at least one of these groups, and around 1,050 accounts followed one or more of these Instagram accounts.
  • Advertising: Around $1,100 in spending for ads on Facebook paid for in US dollars and Pakistani rupees. The first ad ran in May 2015 and the most recent ad ran in December 2018.

Among these pages were Pakistan Cyber Defence News, Kashmir News, Gilgit Baltistan Times, Kashmir for Kashmiris, Painter's Palette, and PakistaN Army — the BEST. The information regarding names of the pages was shared by Atlantic Council think tank's Digital Forensic Research (DFR) Lab, which went through the material taken down by Facebook from the Pakistani network.

While talking to Dawn.com, Gleicher did not specify the number of individuals identified as being part of the network, nor did he elaborate on how the links between them and the blocked pages and accounts were established.

A sample of the content posted by some of the pages discovered by the investigation. ─ Photo courtesy Facebook
A sample of the content posted by some of the pages discovered by the investigation. ─ Photo courtesy Facebook

"For security purposes we cannot get too specific about how we make these links," he said, because this sort of monitoring is an ongoing activity. "One of the ways we make these links is when we see someone operating one of these fake accounts, and then they log into their own account," he added.

"We do not generally inform the individuals involved but we are in touch with the policy makers [of the countries]," said Gleicher. When asked about which policy makers they had reached out to in Pakistan, he named the Prime Minister's Office and "social media adviser".

India

Ahead of the Indian Elections ─ starting April 11 ─ Facebook said it has removed 687 pages and accounts linked to India’s main opposition Congress party because of “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” on the social media platform.

A sample of the content posted by some of the pages discovered by the investigation. ─ Photo courtesy Facebook
A sample of the content posted by some of the pages discovered by the investigation. ─ Photo courtesy Facebook

Facebook said its investigation found that individuals used fake accounts and joined various groups to disseminate their content and increase engagement. Their posts included local news and criticism of political opponents such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Facebook said.

"While the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our review found that it was connected to individuals associated with an INC (Indian National Congress) IT Cell," it said, sharing the following details:

  • Presence on Facebook: 138 Pages and 549 Facebook accounts.
  • Followers: About 206,000 accounts followed one or more of these Pages.
  • Advertising: Around $39,000 USD in spending for ads on Facebook, paid for in Indian rupees. The first ad ran in August 2014 and the most recent ad ran in March 2019.

Two of the samples shared by Facebook were of posts that criticised Modi’s initiatives and called for supporting the Congress party and its president, Rahul Gandhi.

Separately, Facebook removed 15 pages, groups and accounts for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behaviour on Facebook and Instagram in India.

"A small number of page admins and account owners used a combination of authentic and fake accounts to share their content across a variety of pages. They posted about local news and political events, including topics like the Indian government, the upcoming elections, the BJP and alleged misconduct of political opponents including the INC," said the statement. "Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found that this activity was linked to individuals associated with an Indian IT firm, Silver Touch."

  • Presence on Facebook and Instagram: 1 Page, 12 Facebook accounts, 1 Group and 1 Instagram account.
  • Followers: About 2.6 million accounts followed this Page, about 15,000 accounts joined this Group, and around 30,000 accounts followed this Instagram account.
  • Advertising: Around $70,000 USD in spending for ads on Facebook, paid for in Indian rupees. The first ad ran in June 2014 and the most recent ad ran in Feb 2019.

Separately, Facebook said it had also removed another 227 pages and 94 accounts in India for violating its policies against spam and misrepresentation.

'Coordinated inauthentic behaviour' explained

Taken from a video of Nathaniel Gleicher, Head of Cybersecurity Policy

Nathaniel Gleicher, the head of Cybersecurity Policy. ─ Facebook video
Nathaniel Gleicher, the head of Cybersecurity Policy. ─ Facebook video

At Facebook, we are working to route out all forms of abuse, including 'coordinated inauthentic behaviour'.

Coordinated inauthentic behaviour is when groups of pages or people work together to mislead others about who they are or what they are doing.

Coordinated inauthentic behaviour isn't unique to Facebook or social media. People have been working together to mislead others for centuries and they continue to do so.

When we take down one of these networks, it's because of their deceptive behaviour ─ it's not because of the content they are sharing.

The post themselves may not be false and may not go against our community standards. We might take a network down for making it look like it is being run from one part of the world, when in fact it is being run from another.

This could be done for ideological purposes or it could be financially motivated. For example, spammers might seek to convince people to click on a link, to visit their page or to read their post.

We go after this kind of behaviour in two ways: using people and using technology together.

First our experiment investigators look for and take down the most sophisticated networks manually. This is like looking for a needle in a very large haystack.

Second, we built technology to automatically detect and remove the most common threats. This is like trekking that haystack. A good example of this is how we automatically detect and stop millions of attempts to create fake accounts every day.

Our people detect and stop the most sophisticated bad actors and we improve our technology based on what we learn and then that technology stops the less sophisticated threats, helping our investigators focus on what matters the most.

That's how we're keeping coordinated inauthentic behaviour off Facebook: look for the needle, shrink the haystack.

Source: Facebook Newsroom