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Facebook removes politically motivated accounts targeting Africa

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 17 May 2019
Facebook has 2.2 billion users worldwide, with 139 million in Africa.
Facebook has 2.2 billion users worldwide, with 139 million in Africa.

Facebook has moved to combat the spread of misinformation and election interference, shutting down hundreds of accounts run by Israeli organisations attempting to influence politics in African countries.

The social media giant says it has removed 265 Facebook and Instagram accounts, Facebook pages, groups and events, which "co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour" from Israeli organisations.

Of these 65 accounts, 161 pages, 23 groups and 12 events were created by an Israeli commercial entity called Archimedes Group.

The accounts, which aimed at disrupting elections, spreading fake political news and causing various forms of public manipulation, primarily targeted Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, Angola, Niger and Tunisia, along with some activity in Latin America and Southeast Asia.

Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook's head of cyber security policy, says in a blog post that the tech giant has banned Archimedes Group and all of its subsidiaries from its platform.

"The people behind this network used fake accounts to run pages, disseminate their content and artificially increase engagement. Although the individuals attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found that some of this activity was linked to an Israeli commercial entity, Archimedes Group.

"It has repeatedly violated our misrepresentation and other policies, including by engaging in co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour. This organisation and all its subsidiaries are now banned from Facebook, and it has been issued a cease and desist letter."

About 2.8 million accounts followed one or more of these Facebook pages, and about 5 500 accounts joined at least one of these groups and around 920 people followed one or more of these Instagram accounts, Gleicher wrote.

Nine events were hosted by these pages. The first was scheduled for October 2017 and the most recent was scheduled for May 2019. Up to 2 900 people expressed interest in at least one of these events, and a portion of their accounts were previously identified and disabled as fake.

Facebook says it cannot confirm whether any of these events actually occurred.

"They also represented themselves as locals, including local news organisations, and published allegedly leaked information about politicians. The page administrators and account owners frequently posted about political news, including topics like elections in various countries, candidate views and criticism of political opponents."

On its Web site, Archimedes Group describes itself as a "group of experts from a wide spectrum of fields, consulting, lobbying, public diplomacy, international public relations, information, and social media, who are leaders in running large-scale campaigns worldwide".

According to the Web site, the organisation is based in Tel Aviv, Israel.

"The group spent around $812 000 for adverts on Facebook, paid for in Brazilian reals, Israeli shekel and US dollars. The first ad ran in December 2012 and the most recent ad ran in April 2019," Gleicher pointed out.

A sample of the content posted by some of the Facebook pages. (Source: Facebook)
A sample of the content posted by some of the Facebook pages. (Source: Facebook)

Under pressure

Facebook, which has 2.2 billion users worldwide, with 139 million in Africa, has faced backlash over the past few years from government leaders, citizens and organisations who accused it of being used as a tool to spread fake news, propaganda and terrorist activity.

It has been facing calls for regulation from the US Congress and British privacy regulators after reports last year revealed political data firm Cambridge Analytica harvested the personal data of millions of people's Facebook profiles without their consent, and used the information for political advertising during the 2016 US presidential election.

Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised stronger controls on the social network following a scandal-ridden 2018.

In an interview with ITWeb last month, Emilar Gandhi, Facebook public policy lead for the SADC region, said Facebook was working to ensure the integrity of the South African elections, which took place on 8 May.

She noted the social media company had invested significantly in people and technology to ensure it can proactively detect fake accounts before they are even reported, and is now replicating those efforts at a national level.

"Secondly, we are working on removing fake accounts from the platform. At Facebook, we place value on authentic dialogue and we believe that people are accountable for their actions if they are using their authentic identity on Facebook," she explained at the time.

Emilar Gandhi, Facebook public policy lead for the SADC region.
Emilar Gandhi, Facebook public policy lead for the SADC region.

Last year, Facebook enlisted Africa Check and AFP to tackle false news in Africa and help assess the accuracy of news and reduce the spread of misinformation, while improving the quality of news that people find on its platform.

Academics at the University of Oxford in the UK and Stanford University in the US issued a research report consisting of a list of guidelines and recommendations for Facebook, titled: "Glasnost! Nine Ways Facebook Can Make Itself a Better Forum for Free Speech and Democracy".

One of the recommendations in the report, released in January, was that Facebook should hire more culturally diverse content reviewers.

"Facebook still has too little content policy capacity to meet legitimate, and sometimes urgent, public interest and human rights concerns in many different countries. Similar problems have been reported in Sri Lanka, Libya and the Philippines, where content that was not just hate speech but dangerous speech was left up for too long, often with disastrous consequences," it asserted.

Facebook says it is working on appointing an independent global oversight board, which will have the authority to review the social network's content decisions.

As part of that process, the company is hosting consultation workshops in various parts of Africa, to engage recognised experts to provide guidelines around implementing a level of censorship on the platform.

"Over the next year, we will design a global body, an oversight board, which will have the authority to review some of our most challenging and contentious content decisions. Every day we grapple with our responsibility to keep our community safe while giving people freedom to express their opinions about the issues that matter the most to them," noted Ime Archibong, Facebook's VP of product partnerships.