Facebook removes network of accounts, pages ‘operated from Pakistan’

Published September 2, 2020
“The vast majority of the accounts, Pages and Groups engaged in coordinated reporting of content and people that were critical of Pakistan’s government or supportive of India, and some engaged in spam,” Facebook said. — Reuters/File
“The vast majority of the accounts, Pages and Groups engaged in coordinated reporting of content and people that were critical of Pakistan’s government or supportive of India, and some engaged in spam,” Facebook said. — Reuters/File

KARACHI: Facebook has removed 453 Facebook accounts, 103 Pages, 78 groups and 107 Instagram accounts being operated from Pakistan over “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”, it announced on Tuesday.

Facebook removes content for coordinated behaviour when it finds domestic, non-governmental campaigns that include groups of accounts and pages seeking to mislead people about who they are and what they are doing while relying on fake accounts.

In a blog post, the company said it had found the network as part of its internal investigation into suspected coordinated activity in the region.

The people behind this network relied on fake accounts — some claiming to be based in India — to post content and manage a handful of Indian military fan pages and groups, it said.

“The vast majority of the accounts, Pages and Groups engaged in coordinated reporting of content and people that were critical of Pakistan’s government or supportive of India, and some engaged in spam,” Facebook added.

According to the company’s investigation, the network posted primarily in English and Hindi about regional news and current events, including memes and content about social and political issues in Pakistan and India, such as India’s policies towards China, the Indian military, criticism of the Indian government and its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The findings

Facebook shared a portion of this network with the Stanford Internet Observatory on August 28.

In its detailed report of the takedown, Stanford found that the network engaged in mass reporting: the coordinated reporting of accounts ostensibly for violating a platform’s terms of service.

The network, it said, 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.

Accounts shared links that brought users directly to Facebook’s site to report a specific account or account photo. Some accounts, such as those that had intentionally insulting fake names, were clearly in violation of Facebook’s identity policies.

The network also 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”, according to the report.

The network and related users provided tutorials to create fake accounts for reporting and to quickly open many tabs to expedite reporting.

“This is the first example of coordinated mass reporting appearing in a network that Facebook has suspended,” Shelby Grossman, a researcher at the Stanford Observatory Laboratory told Dawn.

“Group leaders of the troll armies would decide on who to report and push those out to other popular groups and pages. Another unique aspect of this network is how they also developed tools to mass report content, including YouTube tutorials on how to create Facebook accounts and pages,” she added.

The Stanford report highlighted that troll armies with names like Voice of Islam would push posts to groups and pages in the network, encouraging users to report up to 80 profiles at a time, with tips on how to do so quickly and with direct links to the reporting sites.

Their motivation, as stated in the About section of one Group, was “complete elimination of all blasphemous prophets, saints, companions, and other enemies of Islam”, it said.

Stanford observed several private groups — some with just a handful of members, some with several hundred members — that appeared to have been places where leaders of a given troll army coordinated on whom to report.

The network, added the report, also had messaging praising the Pakistani military, along with some Indian military fan pages and groups of unclear purpose.

According to the report, many of the 54 suspended Pages had names that showed Pakistani patriotism (e.g. Pakistan Support Pak Army), although a few Pages’ names indicated political leaning towards India. Several Page names explicitly referenced account reporting.

While some of the Pages had thousands of followers, majority of the Pages had fewer than 1,000.

The same themes appeared in the groups, where group titles referenced Pakistani and Indian patriotism, and account reporting, the report added.

This is not the first public suspension of coordinated activity in Pakistan. In April 2019, Facebook suspended a network of accounts allegedly linked to the Pakistani military.

Published in Dawn, September 2nd, 2020

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