Days before voting begins for 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Facebook has removed 687 pages and accounts linked to the Congress party for engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”, the social media platform announced today (Monday, April 1).
“We’re taking down these pages and accounts based on their behaviour, not the content they posted,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity, said in a statement, reported Reuters.
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,” Gleicher said.
“When we remove one of these networks, the reason we remove them is because of their coordinated inauthentic behaviour, that they are using network of fake accounts to conceal their identity… to mislead who’s behind them. That’s the basic reason for removal,” he told reporters.
He asserted that the removal was not based on the content that was shared by these pages and groups. “We are constantly working to detect and stop coordinated inauthentic behaviour because we don’t want our services to be used to manipulate people. We’re taking down these pages and accounts based on their behaviour, not the content they posted,” Gleicher added.
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 criticised Modi’s initiatives and called for supporting the Congress party and its president, Rahul Gandhi.
Facebook also removed 321 pages and accounts in India that have broken its rules against spam.
The social media giant also said it was removing 103 pages, groups and accounts, also for inauthentic behaviour, as part of a network which originated in Pakistan and was linked to employees of the Inter-Service Public Relations department of the Pakistani military.
The 24 pages, 57 accounts and 7 groups removed on Facebook had more than 2.8 million followers. An additional 15 Instagram accounts were also removed.
According to the statement, these pages and accounts removed from Facebook and Instagram spread information about Pakistani politics and political leaders, the Indian government and the Pakistani military.
“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,” Gleicher said.
The ISPR did not respond to requests for its comments, said media reports.
No reaction from the Congress had been reported till late afternoon.
Facebook’s announcement comes at a time when it has been facing increasing pressure across the world, including the Indian government, to ensure its platform is not abused for political gains or to spread misinformation, especially ahead of elections, by politically aligned groups, many of which conceal their true identity. 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.