Facebook shuts down Israel-based disinformation campaigns as election manipulation increasingly goes global

Craig Timberg and Tony Romm, May 16th 2019, Washington Post

Facebook said it shut down 265 fake accounts run by an Israeli social media company on Thursday for engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behavior” as it sought to affect politics in African, Latin American and Southeast Asian nations.

The move, while underscoring the increasingly global nature of social media disinformation campaigns, was unusual for singling out a company that appeared to profit from its publicized work to spread falsehoods online. Archimedes Group, the Israeli company, claims the ability to “use every tool and take every advantage available in order to change reality according to our client’s wishes.”

The fake accounts were on both Facebook and its photo-sharing sister site, Instagram, the company said. Archimedes Group is now banned from both.

“We’re taking down these Pages and accounts based on their behavior, not the content they posted,” said a post by Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of global cybersecurity policy. “As in other cases involving coordinated inauthentic behavior, the individuals behind this activity coordinated with one another to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing, and that was the basis for our action.”

Facebook said the Archimedes Group had 65 Facebook accounts, 161 Facebook pages, 23 Facebook groups and four Instagram accounts. It also had posted 12 Facebook events. About 2.8 million accounts followed at least one of the pages set up by the Archimedes Group, and the company’s accounts bought $812,000 in ads using various currencies, dating back to 2012, according to Facebook.

Archimedes Group did not respond to a request for comment made through its website.

Archimedes Group engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behavior” mainly in African nations, including Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, Tunisia, Angola and Niger, with some activity also in Southeast Asia and Latin America, Facebook said.

But it is unclear who may have paid for the organization to create those pages and purchase ads on Facebook.

“The useful thing about the ads is it gives us high confidence it was Archimedes, but it doesn’t give us high confidence who was paying Archimedes,” said Graham Brookie, the director of the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council. “It shows one of the vulnerabilities of some of [Facebook’s] transparency tools.”

“It is disinformation for money,” Brookie added. “It’s the convergence of ideological disinformation, and disinformation for economic gain.”

The tactics resembled those used by Russia’s Internet Research Agency to interfere in the U.S. election in 2016 and after the election of President Trump. The fake accounts set up by the Archimedes Group, Facebook said, typically posed as news organizations or other local actors in spreading information about political candidates, including in some cases from supposed leaks.

U.S. technology companies previously have shut down disinformation campaigns based in Russia, Iran and Venezuela, and experts say the tactics now are widely deployed across the world, including in the United States by domestic political actors.