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Russia's influence campaign on Facebook (2019 remix)

Stop me if you've heard this one before: a large, linked network of Facebook pages, created using fal
January 17 · Issue #275 · View online
The Interface
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a large, linked network of Facebook pages, created using false identities is caught attempting to manipulate public opinion. An investigation reveals that the pages are of a Russian origin, and have tied to the Kremlin. Facebook steps in to remove the accounts from the network.
It’s a story we heard in the aftermath of the 2016 election, and for many of us it transformed the way we think about social networks. And it’s a story we heard again on Thursday, when Facebook announced that Russia’s influence campaign on the platform continued. Here’s Tony Romm in the Washington Post:
The tech giant’s latest takedown — announced in an early-morning blog post — included more than 300 pages that primarily targeted regions including Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The pages represented themselves as independent news sites or hubs for information about travel, economics and local politicians, Facebook said. But they each had undisclosed links to employees of Sputnik. The news website is owned by Rossiya Segodnya, the Kremlin’s news agency.
More than 790,000 users followed at least one of the suspended pages, according to Facebook, which operated between October 2013 and January 2019. The pages frequently posted about politically sensitive issues, including anti-NATO sentiment. Researchers at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which reviewed Facebook’s data, described the campaign as a “systematic, covert attempt” to improve the reach of Russian state-owned media “across more than a dozen countries.”
As significant as this move is — and we can talk about why in a minute — it’s worth noting that this isn’t even the biggest influence campaign Facebook has discovered on the platform this month. It’s been only a week since the company announced it had taken down a network of pages in the Philippines that involved 220 pages and had a combined following of 43 million people. (It seems worth noting that only 104 million people live in the Philippines.)
Still, there’s a twist in the 2019 Russian operation. Alex Stamos, the former Facebook chief security officer, noted on Twitter that this is the first time we’ve seen a Russian propaganda channel implicated in covert action.
The 5-year-old Sputnik was modeled in part on BuzzFeed, and represented an effort to create a younger, hipper form of propaganda. As Andrew Feinberg, who was briefly a reporter at the outlet, reported in Politico in 2017, the journalists there had a mandate to disseminate the Kremlin’s viewpoint and nothing else:
In practice, Sputnik’s mission statement—“Telling the Untold”—means that Sputnik’s content should reflect the Russian side of any news story, whether it lines up with reality or not. When it came to the issue of Crimea (which has been occupied by Russian-backed troops since 2014), we were never to write anything on the subject that didn’t include language noting that 90 percent of Crimea residents voted in a referendum to rejoin Russia. Of course, when I’d include details of the tanks and armed men that lined the streets while the people of Crimea voted in that referendum, it would be removed from the story before it went live.
When asking about Ukraine, I’d based the premise of my question on the reality of the situation, and the pushback, as I interpreted it, was swift.
Of course, this is also covert action, in a way. Sputnik represents itself as journalism, but is in fact funded by state-level actors for the sole purpose of advancing the state’s interests, and never discloses that to readers. (When questioned about this, Russian outlets typically retort that American journalists typically promote state interests, too, never mind the fact that they’re editorially independent of the government.)
But this sort of covert action is allowed on all the major tech platforms. YouTube at least labels state-funded propaganda as such, thanks to a change it made last year. (Russia complained loudly, then set about figuring out how to evade the labels.) But visit the verified Facebook page for state-run RT and it’s labeled as “media/news company” — the same label as the Facebook page for the New York Times.
What’s not allowed, however, is lying about who created a Facebook page — Sputnik’s primary offense here. And while some of the content analyzed by by the DFRL promoted Russian interests in the manner of much Sputnik content, the pages deleted today seem to have been interested primarily in audience growth. From the DFRL report:
The pages represented a systematic, covert attempt to improve Rossiya Segodnya’s online audience across more than a dozen countries. Some had little impact, but others racked up tens of thousands of followers. Sputnik was the main beneficiary, as it was often the only source the Facebook pages amplified.
Like any other content creators, Russian propagandists want to amass the largest possible audience. We can’t say for certain what the state’s long-term plans for this audience were, assuming it even had any. But this looks a lot like information warfare — and it appears that Facebook today managed to destroy a would-be propaganda battleship in mid-construction. It may feel like a small thing, but it’s worth celebrating.

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