Facebook Takes Down Network of Accounts Flagging Content Critical of Pakistan

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Facebook granted access to a group of experts from Stanford University to the now-suspended network to conduct a study on how the network operated from Pakistan

Zafar Aafaq | Clarion India

NEW DELHI – Facebook has removed a network of 453 accounts, 103 Pages, 78 Groups and 107 Instagram accounts operated from Pakistan found to be involved in mass reporting content critical of Pakistan, its government, army and Islam or supportive of India, the company said in its August report.

Using its own tools of reporting, the social networking giant conducted an internal investigation and found that the Pakistani network engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behaviour (CIB)” as the accounts would do mass reporting of content and accounts critical of Pakistan. These accounts would mostly post in English and Hindi about regional news and current events.

Facebook defines CIB as “coordinated efforts to manipulate public debate for a strategic goal where fake accounts are central to the operation”.

As for the significant reach of the network, Facebook said that about 70,000 accounts followed one or more of these Pages, about 1.1million accounts joined one or more of these Groups and some 11,000 accounts followed one or more of these Instagram accounts.

Facebook granted access to a group of experts from Stanford University to these now-suspended accounts to conduct a study on how the network operated from Pakistan. The company shared 54 Pages, 66 Groups, 283 profiles, and 96 Instagram accounts with the group from Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO).

They found that many pages had names that showed Pakistani patriotism (e.g., Pakistan Support Pak Army), although a few Pages’ names indicated a political leaning towards India.

Same themes of patriotism ran in the groups as well, the SIO study says. The network followed the tactic of mass reporting of accounts critical of Pakistan or Islam.

Troll armies would push posts to Groups and Pages in the network, encouraging users to report up to 80 profiles at a time, with tips on how to do so quickly and with direct links to the reporting sites, the SIO says.

Shelby Grossman, one of the experts who conducted the study, termed mass reporting as “most striking” aspect of the network. “The thing I found most fascinating was how organized the mass reporting was.” She told Clarion India a lot of effort went into expediting the reporting process. “Key accounts in the network created URLs that would take users directly to the specific Facebook link to report the account.”

The experts identified 208 profiles targeted by the network that were suspended.  However, the experts could not conclude whether the suspension happened because the network reported them. “Indeed, many of the suspended accounts appear to have violated Facebook’s policies around using intentionally-insulting fake names.”

The Facebook investigation concluded that the network used a chrome extension called Auto Reporter to speed up the reporting process allowing the users to mass report in one click. “The developer of the Chrome extension says explicitly that he created it to report anti-Islamic and anti-Pakistan accounts.” Grossman said. “And he made YouTube tutorials on how to use the extension.”

It was new for the experts of Stanford Internet Observatory to see mass reporting phenomenon appear in one of these publicised coordinated inauthentic behaviour takedowns.

An interesting aspect of the network was that it had several pages and groups supportive of Indian military. This was possibly done, the study says, to allow the network to identify Indian military supporters who they would then mass-report.

The accounts and pages of the network mostly posted nationalistic content praising Pakistan, its army, intelligence agencies and the party of Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Some accounts posted content critical of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Indian military.

The Stanford study notes that the members of the network engaged in mass reporting with a sense of duty towards religion and nation. But the quality of disinformation, Grossman says, was “not very sophisticated”.

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