Early Thursday, Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of Cybersecurity Policy, announced the social media giant removed hundreds of fake pages and profiles on both Facebook and Instagram that misrepresented themselves as independent new outlets and individuals. Many of these fake news outlet pages were linked directly back to Russia’s state-owned news agency, Sputnik.
“Today we removed multiple Pages, Groups, and accounts that engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior on Facebook and Instagram. The two operations we found originated in Russia, and one was active in a variety of countries, while the other was specific to Ukraine,” Gleicher wrote.
Although Russian influence campaigns have only recently become the subject of widespread discussion within American media, Moscow’s narrative-controlling efforts actually date back well into the Cold War. For instance, after the Kennedy assassination, Moscow used small, state-owned media outlets to report the CIA may have been involved in the president’s murder–just so those stories could be cited by larger outlets. This created a credibility feedback loop easily mistaken as legitimate reporting. Now, Moscow uses a similar methodology, creating at least 364 fake news pages and accounts, with a total following greater than 800,000 people.
The focus of many of these pages, Facebook said, were campaigns in Romania, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Georgia, and Moldova–with a large emphasis placed on anti-NATO sentiments.
“The Page administrators and account owners primarily represented themselves as independent news Pages or general interest Pages on topics like weather, travel, sports, economics, or politicians,” the Facebook statement reads. “Despite their misrepresentations of their identities, we found that these Pages and accounts were linked to employees of Sputnik, a news agency based in Moscow; and that some of the Pages frequently posted about topics like anti-NATO sentiment, protest movements, and anti-corruption.”
More than 100 pages, accounts, and Instagram profiles were also removed for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior out of Ukraine–a nation on the brink of conflict with Russia that has already seen the Russian military annex territory in previous interactions.
“Separately, based on an initial tip from U.S. law enforcement, we also removed 107 Facebook Pages, Groups, and accounts, as well as 41 Instagram accounts, for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior as part of a network that originated in Russia and operated in Ukraine,” Gleicher said.
“The individuals behind these accounts primarily represented themselves as Ukrainian. They operated a variety of fake accounts while sharing local Ukrainian news stories on a variety of topics, such as weather, protests, NATO, and health conditions at schools.”
Sputnik, a U.S. based news outlet that’s owned by the Russian government, isn’t currently registered as a foreign actor in the United States, though it’s partner company, RIA Global LLC, is. Sputnik released a brief statement regarding Facebook’s announcement, attempting to color the move as a censorship issue.
“The decision is clearly political in its nature and is practically censorship–seven [Facebook] pages belonging to our news hubs in neighboring countries have been blocked,” the statement said.
“Sputnik editorial offices deal with news and they do it well. If this blocking is Facebook’s only reaction to the quality of the media’s work, then we have no questions, everything is clear here. There is still hope that common sense will prevail,” the statement continued.
You can read Facebook’s full statement here.