Anjana Pasricha contributed to this report.
ISLAMABAD – Facebook has removed hundreds of accounts and pages linked to Indian political parties or the Pakistani military for what the company described as “coordinated inauthentic behavior or spam.” The Facebook or Instagram accounts, pages or groups were detected through internal investigations into account activity in the region before upcoming elections in India.
“These Pages and accounts were engaging in behaviors that expressly violate our policies. This included using fake accounts or multiple accounts with the same names; impersonating someone else; posting links to malware; and posting massive amounts of content across a network of Groups and Pages in order to drive traffic to websites they are affiliated with in order to make money,” Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, said in a statement.
The social media giant has become much more conscious of user activity after a scandal in which data mining firm Cambridge Analytica used information from tens of millions of Facebook users to manipulate political campaigns in multiple countries, including the United States.
Indian political parties are relying heavily on social media to push forward their agenda in a tough general election that begins April 11, and the issue of fake news remains a major concern.
Facebook says 687 pages and accounts that were detected and suspended by its automated system were linked to India’s main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, or INC. The Facebook statement also said the company removed 15 pages, groups and accounts tied to officials associated with Indian IT firm Silver Touch. The information technology firm is linked to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. One Silver Touch Facebook page was followed by 2.6 million accounts, compared to 206,000 followers of the INC-linked pages.
The INC tweeted that no official pages run by the party had been taken down. “Additionally, all pages run by our verified volunteers are also unaffected,” it said.
A party official who did not want to be named told VOA that Facebook has not shared further information with the party about the pages in question or provided a list of them.
Pratik Sinha, who runs fact-checking website AltNews.in, said Facebook’s announcement gives a “lopsided” view that only the opposition INC has been engaged in pushing spam. Sinha pointed out that Silver Touch, whose accounts were taken down, had spent much more on advertising on the social media platform compared to the pages created by the INC’s IT cell.
In neighboring Pakistan, 103 pages or accounts linked to the media cell of that country’s military have been removed.
“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found that it was linked to employees of the ISPR (Inter-Services Public Relations) of the Pakistani military,” the Facebook statement said.
These individuals, according to the statement, were operating “military fan Pages; general Pakistani interest Pages; Kashmir community Pages; and hobby and news Pages” with posts on politics and the military.
The ISPR declined to comment for this story.
Journalists or rights activists in Pakistan often complain of online trolling or harassment from fake accounts.
Journalist Gharidah Farooqi said she regularly faces threats and harassment online from accounts that appear to be military fan pages. She has complained to the military’s media wing, but been told the institution has nothing to do with the issue.
Another journalist, Asma Shirazi, told VOA she has faced an “organized and institutionalized” campaign against her online for her coverage of opposition leaders, particularly ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Shirazi added that she has been accused of being “anti-Pakistan” and taking bribes from Sharif’s (Pakistan Muslim League) party.
Last week, several Facebook accounts posted pictures and personal details — such as home address and contact details — of rights activist Marvi Sirmed and incited people to kill her after falsely accusing her of acting against Islam and promoting a “free sex, incestuous society.”
Sirmed is a regular critic of the military, as well as the current administration of Prime Minister Imran Khan. Facebook has already taken down at least one account, but Sirmed said several others remain. Sirmed says she has complained to local authorities and is awaiting a response.