Facebook Declares Open Season on Russian Trolls

Facebook has taken down more than 270 pages and accounts operated by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced Tuesday.

IRA trolls and ads were involved in Russia’s attempts to interfere with the 2016 United States presidential elections, and the trolls have published hate speech and incitements to violence on their Facebook pages.

The pages were removed “solely because they were controlled by the IRA, and not based on the content they shared,” Zuckerberg said.

The purge helped Facebook identify a network IRA has used to manipulate people in Russia, Zuckerberg remarked, and this is “the next step towards removing them from Facebook entirely… . We don’t want them on Facebook anywhere in the world.”

Americans “were all too quick to retweet Russian propaganda, and whatever Facebook shuts down may simply pop up elsewhere,” said Alan Hall, a senior analyst at the Socionomics Institute.

“Facebook’s worst enemy may be its business model,” he told The E-Commerce Times.

Breaking Down the Takedown

Facebook shut down 70 Facebook accounts and 65 Instagram accounts, along with 138 Facebook Pages, according to Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos. Facebook also removed ads run on many of the pages.

Ninety-five percent of the pages taken down had Russian content and were targeted at Russians in Russia or Russian speakers worldwide, including in neighboring countries.

About 1 million people followed at least one of the Facebook pages removed, and about 500,000 followed at least one of the Instagram accounts purged, Zuckerberg said.

Facebook’s Other Moves

Facebook will update its Help Center tool in the next few weeks so members can check whether they liked or followed one of the pages removed.

It also will increase its security and content review workforce from 15,000 to 20,000 by year end.

Further, Facebook has clamped down on how much data developers can pull from the Facebook and Instagram APIs. Among other things, they can’t access guest lists or posts on users’ event walls on Facebook. Further restrictions are in the works. Meanwhile, Instagram has reduced the API limit from 5,000 calls per hour to 200.

“This doesn’t get to the fundamental issues,” said John Simpson, a spokesperson for Consumer Watchdog.

Those are “the possibility of Facebook using its platform to promote its own political interests, and a business model that relies on exploiting users’ data,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“Trolls, spambots and attackers change their tactics as modifications like this takes place,” noted cybersecurity expert Ralph Echemendia.

“It remains to be seen how effective this will be in the months to come, or how disruptive it will be to legitimate use of the platform,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

The Price of Ignoring Privacy

Facebook last year acknowledged it had uncovered 470 accounts that promoted about 3,000 ads pushing Russian propaganda. It subsequently told Congress that Russian propaganda had reached 150 million Americans.

Democratic lawmakers have demanded new rules for governing political ads on social media, and called on Facebook and Twitter to release information about Russian ties to the #releasethememo campaign, believed to have been promoted by Russian bots.

Zuckerberg is set to testify before Congress next week.

Six privacy and consumer groups, including Consumer Watchdog, have demanded that Facebook cease campaign contributions and electioneering activity until it ensures the integrity of all apps on its platform and can provide public transparency for all election-related activities.

Facebook should retain an auditor, such as former president Jimmy Carter and the Carter Center, to monitor its management of users’ personal information with respect to election ads, the groups also recommended.

Meanwhile, Facebook has announced that 87 million people were impacted by the Cambridge Analytics data harvesting rather than 50 million as previously reported.

It’s “difficult to say” what else Facebook can do to prevent trolls and bots from interfering with elections, Echemendia said. “Using technology in a way not initially envisioned is on one hand called ‘innovation,’ and on the other ‘disruptive.'”

Richard Adhikari

Richard Adhikari has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2008. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile technologies, CRM, databases, software development, mainframe and mid-range computing, and application development. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including Information Week and Computerworld. He is the author of two books on client/server technology. Email Richard.

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