Facebook says it has discovered extensive Russian and Iranian online networks working through its platform that are dedicated to influencing and disrupting political activity in more than two dozen countries. The networks, composed of thousands of Facebook and Instagram accounts, target political parties and campaigns in the U.S., North Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, including Ecuador.
Facebook said Monday that it had taken down four foreign interference operations originating in Iran and Russia, including one targeting the U.S. 2020 presidential elections that appears to be linked to the Russian troll agency, the Internet Research Agency. It also said it discovered “illegal social media activity” generated at the Russian state news agencies Sputnik and Russia Today (RT).
“The main purpose of these networks was to generate propaganda to influence voters in upcoming elections,” a Facebook statement said. “The administrators of these pages and the owners of the accounts presented themselves as local people,” Facebook said. “They used fake accounts to post in groups and managed pages that were posing as news organizations. They also directed traffic to domains outside the platform.”
The statement continued: “We have disassembled these networks and deleted thousands of fake accounts.”
In Latin America the troll campaign was aimed at Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela.
In the Middle East and North Africa, the fake accounts reused content from Iranian public media on issues such as Hezbollah (the militant Shiite Islamic organization), the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, tensions between Israel and Palestine, as well as between Iran and the United States, the war in Yemen between the Saudi coalition and the Houthi rebels, among other matters of global geopolitics, Facebook said.
In the U.S., Facebook said that former vice president Biden was a major target of Russian propaganda.
In a phone link to the media, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the Russian and Iranian troll networks were discovered by staff members following up on tips from outside investigators. He said Facebook was “redoubling its efforts to keep outside influencers from the political life of independent countries.”
His comments appeared to be an attempt to walk back early concerns about interfering with the right of free speech on social media.