‘Fake’ accounts linked to Pakistani military deleted

NEW DELHI: Facebook Inc said yesterday it was removing 687 pages and accounts linked to India’s main opposition Congress party, just days before voting begins in a general election, because of “coordinated inauthentic behavior” on the social media platform. The announcement marks a rare action from Facebook against a prominent political party in a country where it has more than 300 million users, the highest in the world.

Facebook said its investigation found that individuals used fake accounts and joined various groups to disseminate their content and increase engagement. Their posts included local news and criticism of political opponents such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Facebook said. “While the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our review found that it was connected to individuals associated with an INC (Indian National Congress) IT Cell,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Head of Cybersecurity Policy at Facebook, said in a statement.

Gleicher added that Facebook was removing accounts based on their behavior, not the content they posted. India’s staggered election, scheduled to begin on April 11, will end on May 19. Two of the samples shared by Facebook were of posts that criticized Modi’s initiatives and called for supporting the Congress party and its president, Rahul Gandhi. Facebook has faced increasing pressure from authorities around the world, including the Indian government, to ensure its platform is not abused for political gains or to spread misinformation, especially ahead of elections.
Facebook has toughened up its rules governing political advertisements in India and many other countries to increase transparency. Last week, Facebook removed a social media network in the Philippines and took the unusual step of linking it to a businessman who said he had managed the president’s online election campaign in 2016. It has taken similar actions recently against accounts in Russia and Iran. Separately, Facebook said it had also removed another 227 pages and 94 accounts in India for violating its policies against spam and misrepresentation.

‘Fake’ accounts
In another development, Facebook is removing 103 pages, groups and accounts linked to the media wing of Pakistan’s military, the social media giant announced yesterday, calling them “fake” accounts created to manipulate people. The statement by Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, shines a rare light on efforts by Pakistan’s shadowy military establishment to use social media as a propaganda tool.

“Today we removed 103 Pages, Groups and accounts for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior on Facebook and Instagram as part of a network that originated in Pakistan,” Gleichner said in the statement. “Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found that it was linked to employees of the ISPR (Inter-Service Public Relations) of the Pakistani military,” he said.

Gleichner said ISPR employees were operating military fan pages, as well as pages on Kashmir, “general Pakistani interest”, and local and political news including on topics such as arch-rival India’s army and politicians. Some 2.8 million accounts followed one or more of the pages, he said. Examples included a post from a page called “Pakistan Army – the BEST”, with an image purporting to show a crashed Indian fighter jet with text reading: “Indian airforce has become a consistent failure which is evident from current embarrassment for India”.

Others praised Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan for promoting peace, or propagated unverified claims a Pakistani pilot had shot down five Indian planes. “We are constantly working to detect and stop coordinated inauthentic behavior because we don’t want our services to be used to manipulate people,” Gleichner said. An ISPR spokesman had no immediate comment when contacted by AFP.

Facebook also said it was removing 687 pages and accounts engaged in similarly “inauthentic” behavior that were linked to India’s opposition Congress party, which is contesting nationwide elections due to start on April 11. Congress reacted cautiously, with spokesperson Manish Tewari saying the party “will need to verify the veracity of these reports”. A recent standoff between India and Pakistan over the disputed region of Kashmir saw a deluge of “fake news” hit social media, raising concerns over misinformation in the upcoming election in the world’s largest democracy.

Journalists in Pakistan, one of the most dangerous countries in the world for media, are regularly exhorted by the military to promote a positive image of the country. Any reporting considered critical of the military has long been considered a red flag, with reporters at times detained, beaten and even killed for falling foul of the security establishment. The army has stirred unease previously with declarations it is monitoring social media in Pakistan, where posts considered “against the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defense of Pakistan” are against the law.- Agencies