- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Kremlin has criticized Facebook for recently purging its platform of more accounts connected to the Internet Research Agency, the St. Petersburg-based “troll factory” accused of helping Moscow meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential race.

Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, answered affirmatively when asked on a conference call with media outlets Thursday if he’d label Facebook’s decision to boot over 200 IRA-linked accounts this week as hostile, Russian media reported.

“Yes it is,” Mr. Peskov told the media outlets. “We are of course following this and we regret it.”

Mr. Peskov agreed Facebook’s decision constituted to “a manifestation of censorship toward Russian mass media,” state-run media reported.

Facebook on Tuesday announced the removal of 70 accounts, 138 pages and 65 Instagram profiles linked by its security team to the IRA, following through on its decision last fall to boot about 470 “inauthentic accounts” similarly connected to the same group of professional Russian internet trolls implicated in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 U.S. presidential race.

“Most of our actions against the IRA to date have been to prevent them from interfering in foreign elections. This update is about taking down their pages targeting people living in Russia,” Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained Tuesday.

“We removed this latest set of Pages and accounts solely because they were controlled by the IRA — not based on the content,” said Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer. “This included commentary on domestic and international political issues, the promotion of Russian culture and tourism as well as debate on more everyday issues.”

Among the dozens of Russian pages banned by Facebook this week are Nevsky News, Politics Today, Herald of St. Petersburg, Herald of Moscow, Spicy Blogger and the account for the Federal News Agency (FAN), a purported news group whose correspondent posed Thursday’s question to Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Russia’s RBC Media reported.

Previous reporting has directly linked FAN to some of the 13 Russian citizens charged by Mr. Mueller’s office with meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential race, including Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman accused of funding the IRA, and Aleksandra Krylova, a former high-ranking IRA employee and FAN’s former general director.

“We’ve found the IRA has been using complex networks of fake accounts to deceive people,” Mr. Zuckerberg said Tuesday. “While we respect people and governments sharing political views on Facebook, we do not allow them to set up fake accounts to do this,” said Mr. Zuckerberg.

Mr. Peskov’s remarks came a day after Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, decried Facebook’s decision to ban they accounts as censorship.

“It is odd that a company that celebrates openness is resorting to totalitarian methods of control and censorship on the basis of dubious criteria,” Ms. Zakharova said Wednesday.

“This is an act of political censorship, we did not publish any prohibited content,” agreed Yevgeny Zubarev, the head of FAN, RBC reported.

On Wednesday, meanwhile, FAN announced plans to launch an English-language news organization called “USA Really. Wake Up Americans.” The agency “will focus on the promotion of information and problems that are hushed up by major American publications controlled by the political elite of the United States,” FAN said in a statement.

The U.S. intelligence community has assessed that Mr. Putin authorized Russian operatives to interfere in the 2016 U.S. race to hurt the campaign of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, and that the IRA participated by meddling on social media platforms, Facebook included. The Department of Justice appointed Mr. Mueller last May to investigate allegations involving Russia’s role in the election, and his office has filed charges against 19 individual so far, including Mr. Prigozhin, Ms. Krylova, 11 other Russian nationals and the IRA, among other entities.

Both the White House and Kremlin have denied colluding to hurt the 2016 Clinton campaign.

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