NEW DELHI :
Social media network Facebook said on Monday it has removed 687 pages and accounts linked to individuals associated with the IT Cell of the opposition Congress party, just days before voting begins in general elections.
The accounts were removed for pushing spam or “inauthentic behaviour" and not for the content that was being posted.
There were a total of 138 pages and 549 accounts which were found to be disseminating spam. Facebook said about 206,000 accounts followed one or more of these pages. The network said these pages and accounts together spent around $39,000 on advertising on its platform.
Facebook said the individuals behind this activity used fake accounts and joined various groups to disseminate their content and increase engagement on their own pages. Page administrators and account owners typically posted about local news and political issues, including topics like the upcoming elections, candidates’ views, the Congress and criticism of political opponents including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“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. In each case, the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves, and that was the basis for our action," said Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy at Facebook in a blogpost.
“We have shared relevant information with policymakers and technology platforms," added Gleicher.
"This is to clarify no official pages run by INC have been taken down. Additionally, all pages run by our verified volunteers are also unaffected. In the mean time, we are awaiting a response from Facebook to provide us a list of all pages/accounts that they have taken down," stated INC India on Twitter.
Senior BJP leader and Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said, “Today a very historical development has taken place. Owners of those accounts were not known. It was fake and was used to spread falsehood against Narendra Modi government."
Facebook also removed 15 other pages, groups and accounts engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behaviour" on Facebook and Instagram, linked to individuals associated with an Indian IT firm Silver Touch. Their posts were related to local news, political events, Indian government, elections, the BJP and alleged misconduct of political opponents including the Congress.
It consisted of 12 Facebook accounts and one page and group on the platform along with an Instagram account. About 2.6 million accounts followed the Facebook page, about 15,000 accounts joined the Group, and around 30,000 accounts followed the Instagram account. These pages and accounts spent around $70,000 in advertising on Facebook. The first ad ran in June 2014 and the most recent ad ran in February 2019.
"We don't have enough insights on what's happening essentially on social media on a day to day basis. So, this seems like one of the first few actions in the conduct of the General Elections. It's important to consider the severity of misinformation and propaganda which is going on for a long time on these platforms and the action which has been taken today. It is to be seen as to how much more they will do in the future. This is just a small drop in the bucket," said Apar Gupta, executive director, Internet Freedom Foundation.