- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Facebook said it has removed dozens of accounts from its Instagram app tied to the same Russian firm that used professional internet trolls to interfere in the 2016 U.S. elections.

The Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg-based “troll farm” criminally accused of weaponizing social media platforms by spreading misinformation during the 2016 White House race, has ties to a network of 50 accounts removed from Instagram on Monday, said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy.

“This campaign showed some links to the Internet Research Agency (IRA) and had the hallmarks of a well-resourced operation that took consistent operational security steps to conceal their identity and location,” Mr. Gleicher said in a news release, adding that the network’s activities originated in Russia and were aimed mostly at the U.S.

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“The people behind this operation often posted on both sides of political issues including topics like U.S. elections, environmental issues, racial tensions, LGBTQ issues, political candidates, confederate ideas, conservatism and liberalism,” he said. “They also maintained accounts presenting themselves as local in some swing states, and posed as either conservatives or progressives.”

About a quarter-million Instagram accounts followed the 50 removed Monday, Mr. Gleicher said. More than half of those accounts are in the U.S., he said.

The network, which also included a lone Facebook account, was among several the company said it removed this week for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior on both its namesake social networking service and Instagram, the popular photo- and video-sharing app it acquired in 2012.

Facebook previously found evidence of its platforms being abused by IRA during the 2016 presidential and 2018 midterm elections, and the company has responded by repeatedly imposing new measures meant to prevent playing host to similar misconduct.

Experts have warned recently that Facebook remains vulnerable ahead of 2020, however, and Instagram maybe more than ever. A report published last month by the New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights warned that Instagram’s focus on images rather than words makes it an “ideal venue” for spreading easy-to-digest disinformation, weeks after Facebook’s former head of security raised similar concerns.

“The fact that Instagram is mostly images give some benefit, but not a ton,” Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief of security, said in August. “As you know, the Russian troll factories have professional meme farms. Like they have graphic designers using Illustrator all day to create memes. So, ‘Is Instagram ready?’ is actually a big question.”

Facebook has previously tied the IRA to social media accounts that boosted disinformation and other politically charged content to U.S. audiences during the 2016 and 2018 elections, including widely reported efforts during the former to disparage the campaign of former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. More recently, Facebook said it removed dozens of related Instagram accounts on the eve of last year’s midterm elections.

The Justice Department has filed federal criminal charges against the IRA, its parent company and several associations, among others, in connection with its alleged conduct during the 2016 election. Lawyers for the parent company, Concord Management and Consulting, have pleaded not guilty to all counts.

Elena Khusyaynova, an accountant for the IRA, was separately charged in October 2018 in connection with allegedly attempting to similarly interfere in last year’s elections. She was arrested in Bulgaria this month at the request of U.S. authorities but released shortly afterward.

Facebook said it removed a total of four networks Monday for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior. The other three originated in Iran and were also conducted on both Facebook as well as Instagram, according to the company.

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