By Aditya Kalra and Saad Sayeed
NEW DELHI/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Facebook has deleted 712 accounts and 390 pages in India and Pakistan for “inauthentic behavior”, it said on Monday, many of them linked to India’s opposition Congress party days before a general election, and others related to Pakistan’s military.
Facebook has come under increasing pressure around the world to ensure its social media platform is not abused for political purposes or to spread misinformation, especially ahead of elections.
The action against accounts with alleged links to Congress, the party led by the Gandhi family that has dominated Indian politics for much of the post-independence era, marks a bold move by Facebook, especially given it has more than 300 million users in India.
Facebook is a key political campaigning tool in India’s election – the largest democratic exercise in the world – which starts on April 11.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his rivals use official Facebook accounts to send political messages to millions of followers, thousands of unverified pages also share posts to support or criticize politicians.
Among the most significant things it has removed, Facebook said it had taken down 549 accounts and 138 pages linked to India’s Congress for “coordinated inauthentic behavior”.
Facebook said it also banned 15 accounts linked to an Indian company named Silver Touch. The head of cybersecurity policy at Facebook, Nathaniel Gleicher, told Reuters the company was “associated with” a mobile app promoted by Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
BJP’s IT head, Amit Malviya, late on Monday told Reuters both the party and the app had “nothing to do with Silver Touch”.
In a tweet the Congress party said none of its official pages or those run by its verified volunteers had been taken down. The party is awaiting a response from Facebook to provide a list of all pages and accounts which were removed, it said.
The Digital Forensic Research Lab at the international affairs think tank Atlantic Council, which partnered with Facebook for the review, said the accounts linked to India’s Congress pushed satirical posts, while pro-BJP pages “carried vitriolic posts against opposition leaders”.
“The fact that partisans on both sides resorted to such tactics is a troubling feature,” the think tank said in a blog post.
In Pakistan, Facebook removed 57 accounts, 24 pages, seven groups and 15 Instagram accounts, also for inauthentic behavior, as part of a network which originated in Pakistan and was linked to employees of a unit of the Pakistani military.
Nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan both sent warplanes to attack each other’s territory in February after a suicide bomb attack claimed by a Pakistan-based militant group killed 40 Indian paramilitary police in the disputed region of Kashmir. The attack also led to a deluge of fake news, another issue social media companies have been grappling with.
CRITICISM OF POLITICIANS
Facebook’s Gleicher said in a statement that Facebook had removed accounts based on their behavior, not on their content.
The company’s review found individuals using fake accounts and issuing posts including criticism of the BJP who were “associated with an INC (Indian National Congress) IT Cell”.
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.
Separately, Facebook said it had removed 12 accounts and one page, plus one group and one Instagram account, which linked to individuals related to an Indian IT firm Silver Touch. Among other things, they shared content on the BJP and the alleged misconduct of its political rivals, Facebook said.
Asked what Silver Touch’s link with politics were, Gleicher told Reuters that Facebook knew only that it was an Indian IT firm that, among other things, worked for Modi’s BJP.
The only link Facebook saw was that the company was associated with a mobile application promoted by Modi, Gleicher said, without elaborating.
Facebook’s actions on Monday included the removal of a “pro-BJP” page called “The India Eye”, which had more than 2 million followers, “was strongly nationalist”, a vocal supporter of Modi and a critic of Gandhi, Atlantic Council said.
Silver Touch did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Facebook said it had also removed another 227 pages and 94 accounts in India for violating its policies on spam and misrepresentation.
In Pakistan, Facebook said it removed pages and accounts on Facebook and Instagram that spread information about Pakistani politics, the Indian government and the Pakistani military.
Those accounts were being run by employees of the Pakistani military’s public relations arm, the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), Facebook said.
No comment was immediately available from ISPR.
These Pakistani accounts, pages, groups and Instagram accounts removed from Facebook had more than 2.8 million followers.
Facebook has been taking similar measures elsewhere around the world. Last week it 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 also taken such action recently against accounts in Russia and Iran.
(Reporting by Aditya Kalra and Saad Sayeed; Additional reporting by Jonathan Weber and Munsif Vengattil; Editing by Martin Howell and Nick Macfie)