Facebook head of security Alex Stamos today announced that roughly 140 Facebook and Instagram accounts, as well as 138 Facebook Pages controlled by the Internet Research Agency (IRA), have been removed from its platforms. IRA is best known as a state-sponsored propaganda machine that has disseminated Russian propaganda for years and employs hundreds of so-called trolls.
In February, U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted a dozen current or former IRA employees, as well as IRA funder Evgeny Prigozhin, for their roles in spreading misinformation on Facebook and other social media platforms between 2014 and 2016. The Facebook and Instagram accounts shut down today were aimed primarily at Russian-speaking populations within Russia and other parts of the world, with one Page garnering more than 1 million followers.
Some of the Pages removed today touched on politics, while others dealt with more mundane issues, like tourism. IRA accounts removed today had spent roughly $167,000 on Facebook and Instagram ads since 2015. This comes in addition to $100,000 on political ads announced last fall, a company spokesperson told VentureBeat in an email.
While some deleted content, like certain Instagram posts, strike a nationalistic or pro-Putin tone, others seem apolitical, depicting art, animals playing, or a sunset in St. Petersburg. Accounts and Pages were removed today simply because of their ties to the IRA.
“The IRA has repeatedly used complex networks of inauthentic accounts to deceive and manipulate people who use Facebook, including before, during, and after the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. It’s why we don’t want them on Facebook,” Stamos said in a blog post. “We removed this latest set of Pages and accounts solely because they were controlled by the IRA — not based on the content.”
Perhaps what’s more noteworthy than the fact that Facebook removed these accounts is that the company let them stay on its platforms for this long. Stamos said his team has been working for months to uncover more IRA activity on Facebook’s platforms, but reports in outlets like BuzzFeed and the New York Times have documented IRA misinformation activity since 2014.
Last September, on the day Facebook announced plans to revamp its political advertising policies, general counsel Colin Stretch said Facebook would share the content of thousands of IRA ads run before and after the 2016 election with Congressional investigators and Mueller.
Two months later, Facebook announced plans to provide people with a tool that notifies users who followed or liked IRA content. The same tool can also tell people if they were connected with any of the recently removed accounts.
“The IRA has consistently used inauthentic accounts to deceive and manipulate people,” Stamos said. “It’s why we remove every account we find that is linked to the organization — whether linked to activity in the U.S., Russia, or elsewhere.”
VentureBeat has reached out to Facebook to ascertain when the social media giant was first made aware that accounts and Facebook Pages removed today were associated with the Internet Research Agency. We will update this story if we hear anything back.
Updated April 3, 11:10 p.m. Pacific with clarification from a Facebook spokesperson regarding IRA advertising spending.