said it has taken down hundreds of pages and accounts that it said were working together to spread misleading content or spam ahead of elections in India set to begin April 11.
The company said those it had removed included accounts it traced to employees of the Pakistani military’s public-relations wing and others linked to the opposition Indian National Congress party.
Facebook has more than 200 million users in India, one of its largest global markets, where inexpensive smartphones and mobile data are bringing people into the internet economy. Viral fake news has become rampant in India on Facebook’s popular WhatsApp messaging platform. The company has altered the app and taken other steps to fight misinformation in the world’s biggest democracy.
Facebook has been under scrutiny for the ways in which it can be used to misinform citizens and exacerbate social divisions. The Menlo Park, Calif., company says it is employing new technological and other solutions to fight the problem.
In a blog post Monday, Facebook said it had removed 103 pages, groups and accounts on its platform and its Instagram photo-sharing service that it traced to employees of the Pakistani military’s public-relations wing.
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The accounts were engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behavior” that used fake accounts to run pages related to topics such as the Pakistani military, the Indian government, and the troubled region of Kashmir, wrote Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity. The accounts had 2.8 million followers, and the individuals involved spent $1,100 in advertising running from May 2015 through December.
In one example Facebook provided, an account called “PakistaN Army – the BEST” posted an image of a smoldering jet with the text “Indian airforce has become a consistent failure which is evident from current embarrassment for India.”
The public-relations wing, Inter Services Public Relations, didn’t respond to a request for comment. A Pakistani security official said that ISPR was being targeted after what he called its successes in presenting Pakistan’s side in the military clashes with India in February.
“We were expecting something like this, to malign ISPR,” said the official. “We know how Western institutions work.”
Facebook said it also had removed 687 pages and accounts linked to the opposition Indian National Congress party. The users employed face accounts and “joined various Groups to disseminate their content and increase engagement on their own Pages,” Mr. Gleicher wrote. They posted about the coming elections and criticized political rivals such as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
The Congress party wrote on its official
account Monday that no official pages run by the party had been taken down.
“Additionally, all pages run by our verified volunteers are also unaffected,” it said. “In the mean time, we are awaiting a response from Facebook to provide us a list of all pages/accounts that they have taken down.”
A Congress party spokeswoman couldn’t be reached for comment.
The accounts had about 206,000 followers and individuals logged some $39,000 in spending on Facebook ads, Facebook said. The ads ran from August 2014 through this month.
Facebook said it also removed a network of unrelated accounts connected to an Indian information-technology firm. The network spanned 15 pages, groups and accounts that posted about local news and various political parties. Those had amassed 2.6 million followers, spending $70,000 for ads between June 2014 and February, Facebook said.
“While we are making progress rooting out this abuse, as we’ve said before, it’s an ongoing challenge and we’re committed to continuously improving to stay ahead,” Mr. Gleicher wrote.
In Indonesia, Facebook in February removed hundreds of accounts linked to an online syndicate that had been accused of spreading hate speech and misinformation. Nationwide elections there begin on April 9.
In recent years, Pakistan’s military public-relations wing, the ISPR, has asserted itself more forcefully, experts say. It has expanded its operations, raised its profile within the military and the public, and moved into a new hub at military headquarters in the city of Rawalpindi.
Pakistan’s military frequently says the country is under attack in an information war from enemies within and outside Pakistan. The military has been accused by journalists of using intimidation and targeting distribution channels and revenue sources to silence critical reporting, allegations that it denies.
“These are propaganda accounts, trying to change people’s perceptions,” said Nighat Dad, a digital-rights activist, of the Facebook accounts. “It’s to mainstream their narrative and suppress critical voices.”
Ms. Dad said such pro-military, hypernationalist accounts were also often used to target women and minorities online in Pakistan.
—Saeed Shah in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this article.
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