Facebook Inc said on Monday it was removing 687 pages and accounts linked to India’s main opposition Congress party, just days before voting begins in a general election, because of “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” on the social media platform.The announcement marks a rare action from Facebook against a prominent political party in a country where it has more than 300 million users, the highest in the world.
Congress, on the other hand, has denied removal of pages by Facebook.
In a tweet, it said, "This is to clarify no official pages run by INC have been taken down. Additionally, all pages run by our verified volunteers are also unaffected. In the meantime, we are awaiting a response from Facebook to provide us a list of all pages/accounts that they have taken down."
Facebook said its investigation found that individuals used fake accounts and joined various groups to disseminate their content and increase engagement.
Their posts included local news and criticism of political opponents such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Facebook said.
“While the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our review found that it was connected to individuals associated with an INC (Indian National Congress) IT Cell,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Head of Cybersecurity Policy at Facebook, said in a statement.
Gleicher added that Facebook was removing accounts based on their behavior, not the content they posted.
India’s staggered election, scheduled to begin on April 11, will end on May 19.
Two of the samples shared by Facebook were of posts that criticized Modi’s initiatives and called for supporting the Congress party and its president, Rahul Gandhi.
The social media giant also said it was removing 103 pages, groups and accounts, also for inauthentic behavior, as part of a network which originated in Pakistan and was linked to employees of the Inter-Service Public Relations department of the Pakistani military.
Facebook has faced increasing pressure from authorities around the world, including the Indian government, to ensure its platform is not abused for political gains or to spread misinformation, especially ahead of elections.
Facebook has toughened up its rules governing political advertisements in India and many other countries to increase transparency.
Last week, Facebook removed a social media network in the Philippines and took the unusual step of linking it to a businessman who said he had managed the president’s online election campaign in 2016. It has taken similar actions recently against accounts in Russia and Iran.
"When we remove one of these networks, the reason we remove them is because of their coordinated inauthentic behaviour, that they are using network of fake accounts to conceal their identity....to mislead who's behind them. That's the basic reason for removal," he told reporters.
He asserted that the removal was not based on the content that was shared by these pages and groups.
"We are constantly working to detect and stop coordinated inauthentic behaviour because we don't want our services to be used to manipulate people. We're taking down these pages and accounts based on their behaviour, not the content they posted," he said.
No immediate comments could be obtained from the Congress.
With ensuing general elections, the Indian government had warned social media platforms of strong action if any attempt was made to influence the country's electoral process through undesirable means.
Talking about the steps taken post the removal, Gleicher said: "We have reached out to the INC to educate them about what we have seen and answer questions they have. We have also reached out to policy makers and government to ensure that they understand the types of behaviour we are seeing and what we are learning".
He explained that the page admins and account owners typically posted about local news and political issues, including topics like the upcoming elections, candidate views, the INC and criticism of political opponents including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
In a blog post, Facebook - which has over 200 million users in India - said the pages and accounts removed had spent around USD 39,000 for ads on Facebook, paid for in Indian rupees. The first ad ran in August 2014 and the most recent ad ran in March 2019.
Separately, Facebook has also removed 15 pages, groups and accounts for engaging in "coordinated inauthentic behaviour" on Facebook and Instagram that were linked to individuals associated with an Indian IT firm, Silver Touch.
These account owners used a combination of authentic and fake accounts to share their content like local news and political events, including topics like the Indian government, the upcoming elections, the BJP and alleged misconduct of political opponents including the INC.
These pages spent around USD 70,000 for ads on Facebook, paid for in Indian rupees. The first ad ran in June 2014 and the most recent ad ran in February 2019.
Referring to the removal of pages linked to a network that originated in Pakistan, Gleicher said the individuals behind this activity used fake accounts to operate military fan pages, general Pakistani interest pages, Kashmir community pages, and hobby and news pages.
"They also frequently posted about local and political news including topics like the Indian government, political leaders and military. Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found that it was linked to employees of the ISPR (Inter-Service Public Relations) of the Pakistani military," he added.
(With PTI inputs)