Facebook is shutting down any activities linked with the notorious Russian “troll farm,” the Internet Research Agency, regardless of content.
On Tuesday, the company deleted 273 pages and accounts on Facebook and Instagram, claiming that the Internet Research Agency was actually in control of them.
However, the affected pages and accounts were rarely viewed by the public in the US or Western Europe. The activities Facebook deleted on Tuesday were actually directed at people in Russia and its neighboring countries including Azerbaijan and Ukraine.
The content appears to be fairly benign. Facebook has uploaded examples, showing the pages masqueraded as Russian media organizations that posted links about local culture and tourism, in addition to everyday news.
Nevertheless, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a post on Tuesday: “This Russian agency has repeatedly acted deceptively and tried to manipulate people in the US, Europe, and Russia —and we don’t want them on Facebook anywhere in the world.”
In total, the pages and accounts managed to gain over 1 million followers on Facebook, and about 500,000 on Instagram. The Internet Research Agency also bought ads over the platforms, a few of which ran taglines such as “Will you go vote for Putin in the presidential election?” and “Are you from the Moscow suburbs? Love your native region? Sign up already to stay on top of the news!”
However, Zuckerberg said the pages and accounts were taken down not because of the content, but over their association with the Russian troll farm.
“While we respect people and governments sharing political views on Facebook, we do not allow them to set up fake accounts to do this,” he said. “When an organization does this repeatedly, we take down all of their pages, including ones that may not be fake themselves.”
However, uncovering the activities wasn’t easy. It took months of investigation, according to Facebook’s chief security officer Alex Stamos, who said the Russian troll farm is constantly changing tactics to evade the company’s security.
Facebook intends to share more about tracing the Internet Research Agency’s activities over the platform, but for now the company is declining to offer specifics, like how it could determine who was in control over the accounts. In the meantime, the social media giant will continue hunting down the group’s activities, Stamos added.
Last November, Facebook’s CEO said he was “dead serious” about stopping state-sponsored trolls from exploiting the platform. This came as US lawmakers fumed over how Russian agents were able to buy ads and circulate posts over Facebook in an attempt to influence voters in the 2016 presidential election.
Federal investigators have indicted 13 Russian nationals and the Internet Research Agency over the election-meddling activities. But US officials are still worried the propaganda efforts could strike again in this year’s mid-term election. In response, Facebook has been rolling out new measures to fight fake news, crack down on state-sponsored propaganda campaigns, and introduce more transparency over political ads served on the platform.
On Tuesday, US Senator Mark Warner said in a statement: “Today’s disclosure of more IRA-linked accounts is evidence that the Kremlin continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to sow division.”
“I am glad that Facebook is taking some steps to pinpoint and address this activity, but I also expect Facebook and Mr. Zuckerberg, along with other platform companies, to continue to identify Russian troll activity,” he added.