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Facebook deleted hundreds of accounts linked to Russia's ‘troll factory,’ and now the people behind those accounts want Facebook blocked in Russia
What did Facebook delete and why?
On April 3, Facebook announced that it deleted 138 Russian-language pages, as well as 70 accounts associated with these pages and another 65 accounts on Instagram. According to the company, all these pages and accounts were controlled by the “Internet Research Agency,” better known as “Russia’s troll factory.”
Based in St. Petersburg, the Internet Research Agency is known for paying employees to use false names to register accounts on social media, which they use to post pro-Kremlin comments and criticize Russia’s anti-Putin opposition. The American government argues that this same enterprise tried to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election by creating communities in support of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and groups against Hillary Clinton. In February 2018, the U.S. Justice Department indicted 13 people with ties to the Internet Research Agency, including its supposed owner, Evgeny Prigozhin — a wealthy catering magnate known informally as “Putin’s chef.” Prigozhin is also the alleged sponsor of a private military company known as “Wagner,” which has been active in eastern Ukraine and Syria.
Facebook says it’s also deleted all promoted content purchased by the banned troll accounts. The company says this amounted to $167,000 in ads, which first started appearing in January 2015.
On Tuesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg issued a statement where he accused the Internet Research Agency of repeatedly using fake accounts to deceive and manipulate users, including in the United States during the presidential election. Zuckerberg also explained that Facebook deleted the 273 accounts and pages specifically because they’d been linked back to the Internet Research Agency — not because of specific content they posted. “We don't want them on Facebook anywhere in the world,” he explained.
What content were the deleted accounts sharing? Who was reading it?
Facebook says there were a total of 1.08 million users subscribed to the deleted pages. Most of these followers — 488,000 subscribers — were in Russia. Another 170,000 accounts were subscribed from Ukraine. Many of the other accounts following these pages were based in countries neighboring Russia: Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Moldova. In third place, with 42,000 followers, was Brazil. Another 29,000 accounts in Turkey were also subscribed to the deleted pages. The total number of accounts following the deleted pages on Instagram was 493,000.
Facebook has offered a few examples of what the “troll factory” was sharing on its network. The content ranges from overt political memes to anodyne photographs of life in Russian cities and stories about ordinary Russians. The list of deleted pages includes “Spicy Blogger,” “Politiach,” “RuOpen — Open Russia,” “Elitism,” “The Petersburg Herald,” “The Moscow Herald,” “The Nizhny Novgorod Herald,” “The Krasnoyarsk Herald,” “Elections 2018,” “Tourism in Russia,” “World Politics,” and others. All these pages have now been removed from Facebook.
In March 2017, the magazine RBC reported on ties between Evgeny Prigozhin’s “troll factory” and The Federal News Agency media group, which emerged next-door to the Internet Research Agency. There are at least 16 publications in The Federal News Agency, including People’s News, PolitRussia, PolitChaos, Political Expertise, InfoReactor, Who’s Who, KievMedia, and others. Ten of these outlets have formal accreditation with Roskomnadzor, Russia’s federal media regulator. Meduza has discovered that the Facebook pages of many of these publications have been blocked.
The outlets that belong to The Federal News Agency media group were never hugely popular on Facebook. According to archives stored on Yandex, The Federal News Agency’s now deleted Facebook page had just 33,000 subscribers before it disappeared. InfoReactor, meanwhile, had slightly more than 6,000 followers and Economics Today’s Facebook audience was only 4,000 subscribers. At the same time, according to statistics available at Liveinternet, the aggregate audience for Prigozhin’s entire “media factory” reached 72 million people in March 2018 — twice as many as a year before.
What’s the reaction from the Russians who lost their accounts and pages?
The Federal News Agency was one of the first groups to report that it had been targeted in Facebook’s troll crackdown. Representatives from the “media factory” say Facebook deleted pages for four of its outlets (Nevsky News, Journalistic Truth, Economics Today, and Politics Today) “without any reason or explanation.”
Accusing Facebook of “political censorship,” The Federal News Agency has asked both houses of Parliament, the Attorney General’s Office, and the Federal Security Service to respond by blocking Facebook and Instagram completely in Russia.
“In connection with the open information war against the Russian Federation and its citizens, which was also waged during Russia’s 2018 presidential election, as well as the particular cynicism during the coverage of the tragedy in Kemerovo, it is necessary to demonstrate severely to foreign social networks and all other foreign information platforms the necessity of observing the laws and constitution of the Russian Federation, which directly prohibit political censorship and the dissemination of false information. We ask all state agencies to combine forces and adopt measures to strengthen Russia’s sovereignty in the information space and to prevent foreign companies from trying to interfere in Russia’s domestic affairs. If foreign social networks refuse to comply with the requirements of Russian laws, we demand that the foreign social networks Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter be blocked on the Russian segment of the Internet,” The Federal News Agency wrote in its petition to the federal government.
On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova defended the media outlets blocked by Facebook, asking the company to specify its allegations and explain further why the network decided to block these publications.
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