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Politics

Facebook axes Russia-linked pages to stop election interference

Mark Zuckerberg says a Russian agency has "tried to manipulate people in the US, Europe, and Russia -- and we don't want them on Facebook anywhere in the world."

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Mark Zuckerberg says Facebook will remove 270 pages and accounts affiliated with the Internet Research Agency.

CNET

Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday said Facebook will take down "more than 270 pages and accounts operated by a Russian organization called the Internet Research Agency."

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"Most of our actions against the IRA to date have been to prevent them from interfering in foreign elections," Facebook's CEO said in a post. "This update is about taking down their pages targeting people living in Russia. 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."

This is the latest example of how Facebook is coming to terms with how its namesake service, built with the mission to connect people around the world, has been turned into a tool of mass manipulation. In the past few years, governments, propagandists and internet trolls have used Facebook to spread false stories and influence elections. 

The IRA is an organization affiliated with the Russian government that's known for creating fake online identities and entering into both sides of divisive political debates, according to allegations from FBI Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller. In February, Mueller charged the agency with conspiracy to defraud the US and "aggravated identity theft" for its activities around the 2016 election. In November, Facebook said it would tell users what content they interacted with that originated with the IRA.

"With today's update, we have now identified a large network the IRA is using to manipulate people in Russia itself. This is the next step towards removing them from Facebook entirely," Zuckerberg said in his post. "While we respect people and governments sharing political views on Facebook, we do not allow them to set up fake accounts to do this. When an organization does this repeatedly, we take down all of their pages, including ones that may not be fake themselves. The pages and accounts we took down today were removed because they were controlled by the IRA, not based on the content they shared."

Zuckerberg said two years ago that the notion his service had been used to influence the US presidential election was "a pretty crazy idea." He's since pulled a 180, handing over records in response to congressional inquiries. He's also announced new policies like more clearly labeled political ads, and renewed efforts to weed out false news stories before they spread on Facebook.

Facebook Chief Information Officer Alex Stamos said in a blog post Tuesday that the content the social media company took down "included commentary on domestic and international political issues, the promotion of Russian culture and tourism as well as debate on more everyday issues." He released two images showing what some of the removed pages and posts looked like.

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Samples of Facebook posts from the pages the company says were generated by the Internet Research Agency and geared toward Russian users.

Facebook

"We'd like to share more -- and we're looking into the best way to provide more transparency into what the IRA has done," Stamos said. The Facebook help center tool will soon feature a section that'll let users check whether they liked or followed any of the pages.

Facebook also said Tuesday it'll roll out a feature that gives users more context about the publishers behind stories that appear in their news feeds. The company began testing the feature with a smaller group of users in November. It lets users see the publisher's other recent stories and its Wikipedia page.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg also weighed in on Tuesday's page takedowns.

"This is in addition to the 470 fake IRA accounts and Pages we removed back in September after they tried to cause division during the US election," Sandberg said in a post. "The IRA has a history of targeting people with deceptive content and it has no place on Facebook anywhere in the world."

"For many months now, I have been pushing Facebook to more aggressively investigate and identify Russian-linked fake accounts on their platform," Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, said in an emailed statement. "Given the scale and scope of the Kremlin's disinformation campaign, it was always clear that Russian activity on Facebook extended far beyond the 470 fake accounts and pages that the company shut down in September.

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A sample of ads Facebook says were generated by accounts affiliated with the Internet Research Agency.

Facebook

Warner praised Facebook for its efforts, but said there's a lot more work to be done, "to identify Russian troll activity and to work with Congress on updating our laws to better protect our democracy in the future."

Michael H. Posner, director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, said he applauded Facebook "for recognizing that Russian disinformation online is a serious problem and for developing a specific response to this sustained Russian effort to inject political propaganda into American society, as well into Russian and European societies."

There are other issues Facebook still needs to tackle beyond state-sponsored propaganda efforts. The company's also facing questions regarding Cambridge Analytica, a data analysis firm that reportedly collected profile information on at least 50 million people through improper channels. Cambridge Analytica then was said to use that data in political campaigns, including the Brexit vote in the UK and President Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign. 

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