Facebook takes down pages linked to Russian news agency Sputnik

Facebook removed hundreds of pages on Thursday it said posed as independent news sites in eastern Europe and elsewhere but were actually run by employees at Russian state-owned news agency Sputnik.

The takedown is the latest in a series of actions taken by the social media giant against Russian disinformation. Last February, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted a Russian troll group for conspiracy to defraud the United States. The group had posed as Americans on Facebook.

Facebook (FB) said the 364 pages and accounts removed Thursday had almost 800,000 followers and had spent around $135,000 on ads on the platform between October 2013 and this month.

The countries targeted included Romania, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Georgia and Moldova. The pages frequently promoted anti-NATO sentiment and protest movements, Facebook said.

The pages used false identities to help them appear authentic. One group of pages was controlled by a Facebook user who claimed to be a woman living in Tbilisi, Georgia. The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which helps Facebook identify fake accounts, found that the photographs on the profile had actually been taken from a Swedish model’s social media accounts.

The pages also promoted almost 200 events. Facebook said it could not confirm if any of them actually took place.

Sputnik’s partner company, RIA Global LLC, is registered as a foreign agent in the United States.

‘Clearly political’

In a statement Thursday, Sputnik said Facebook’s action was “practically censorship.”

“The decision is clearly political in its nature and is practically censorship — seven [Facebook] pages belonging to our news hubs in neighboring countries have been blocked,” the statement said.

“Sputnik editorial offices deal with news and they do it well. If this blocking is Facebook’s only reaction to the quality of the media’s work, then we have no questions, everything is clear here. There is still hope that common sense will prevail,” the statement continued.

The Digital Forensic Research Lab found that the deception wasn’t limited to news content. One page was devoted to travel in Latvia, while another was devoted to fans of the president of Tajikistan.

Another takedown

Separately, Facebook said it had removed another 107 pages, groups and accounts that were designed to look like they were run from Ukraine, but were in fact part of a network that originated in Russia.

“We identified some technical overlap with Russia-based activity we saw prior to the US midterm elections, including behavior that shared characteristics with previous Internet Research Agency activity,” Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, said in a post.

The company said those pages were found following a tip from US law enforcement.