Facebook, Twitter remove 'inauthentic' accounts tied to Iran, Russia, Venezuela

The social networks collaborated to identify fake news on their services.

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Facebook and Twitter removed thousands of pages and accounts originating in Iran that were designed to influence politics and public opinion in other countries, the latest move by the social media giants to combat fake news on their platforms.

Facebook said Thursday that it had taken down a total of 783 pages, accounts and groups that were engaging in "coordinated inauthentic behavior," the language Facebook uses to describe misinformation campaigns orchestrated by people using fake or stolen identities. Misinformation campaigns are designed to exploit divisions and spread chaos in targeted countries.

Also on Thursday, Twitter said it had suspended 2,617 malicious accounts tied to Iran since August. The social network also has pulled down accounts in Bangladesh, Russia and Venezuela.

Nathaniel Gleicher, who runs cybersecurity at Facebook, said the social network discovered the problem activity in part after Twitter shared information about the Iran-linked accounts it found. A Twitter spokesperson confirmed the two companies worked together to track down Iranian accounts. 

"This is an encouraging example of the type of collaboration we're hoping to build across the industry," Gleicher said. 

Twitter's head of site integrity, Yoel Roth, said in a blog post that the company will continue to work with other tech giants "to better understand and identify malicious activity."

Watch this: Facebook is putting women on the front line of its war on fake news

The removals are part of a larger push by Facebook and Twitter to detect and remove problem content. Both social networks have come under fire for failing to stop the spread of fake news on their services in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election. Facebook is also seeking to rehabilitate its image after a series of scandals involving the misuse of its members data.

Facebook's Gleicher said the Iranian campaigns took aim at Facebook and Instagram users in the Middle East and South Asia.

"Anytime you have communities where there is robust conversation happening, where people are congregating, you will see actors trying to target that public debate," Gleicher said during a conference call to explain the company's action. 

The content in the fake accounts was material repurposed from Iranian state media, Gleicher said, but Facebook can't determine the motive behind the campaigns. The accounts posted about topics such as the relations between Israel and Palestine, as well as the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, according to Facebook. Some of the activity dated back to 2010.  

The Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, which analyzed 97 Facebook pages tied to Iran, found that "the pages promoted or amplified views in line with Iranian government's international stances."

"The pages posted content with strong bias for the government in Tehran and against the 'West' and regional neighbors, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel," the group said in a blog post

Facebook previously uncovered and interrupted influence campaigns from Iran. In August, the social network removed 652 pages, accounts and groups related to an Iranian influence campaign. 

Gleicher said the decision to remove the posts and accounts was made because the authors lied about their identities, rather than because of the content of the messages.

"In this case, the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves," Gleicher said in a blog post. "That was the basis for our action."

Gleicher said Facebook's actions came after continued investigation into the campaign it uncovered in August. The company is working with US law enforcement and lawmakers, as well as officials in "impacted countries," he said.

First published Jan. 31, 11:56 a.m. PT
Updates, 12:46 p.m.:
Includes comments from conference call; 1:15 p.m.: Includes more background and comment from Twitter; 2:53 p.m.: Includes more background from Twitter. 5:50 p.m.: Includes analysis by the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab

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