Europe and West targeted by further Russian disinformation efforts, Facebook says

Facebook billboard in the Chicago airport reminding people to watch out for fake accounts. Facebook have accused Russia of propagating disinformation to the EU and the West.

Facebook billboard in the Chicago airport reminding people to watch out for fake accounts. Facebook have accused Russia of propagating disinformation to the EU and the West. [Shutterstock]

A fresh spate of coordinated disinformation campaigns emanating from Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) has sought to target Western and European targets, Facebook has said.

As part of the social media firm’s August report on coordinated inauthentic behaviour, analysing ‘efforts to manipulate public debate for a strategic goal,’ a small network of 13 Facebook accounts and two pages linked to users connected with Russia’s IRA were identified.

The accounts were purportedly associated with the political news website ‘Peace Data’ which has published a range of spurious stories on the UK migrant crisis, NATO and EU politics, and French influence in Africa, among wider issues such as US military policy, tensions between Israel and Palestine and President Donald Trump.

“The people behind this activity relied on fake accounts – some of which had already been detected and disabled by our automated systems – to create elaborate fictitious personas, manage Pages, post in Groups and drive people to their off-platform site masquerading as an independent news outlet,” Facebook noted in their August report.

“These personas operated across a number of internet services and used fake names and profile photos generated likely using machine learning techniques like generative adversarial networks (GAN), and posed as news editors,” the report adds, also finding that the company, Peace Data, had recruited ‘unwitting freelance journalists’ to cover the stories.

NBC News reports that Facebook had received a tip-off from the FBI and it appears that Facebook was able to remove the accounts before they were able to develop a wider presence on the platform, with the English-language page only having around 200 followers.

The IRA leads online influence campaigns on behalf of clients, some of which are believed to represent the interests of the Russian government, and the efforts in this field have previously provoked concerns from policymakers in Brussels.

EU efforts to counter disinformation

In 2015, the European External Action Service’s (EEAS) Strategic Communications and Information Analysis Division was established as part of the East Stratcom Task Force, aiming to counter fake news emanating from Russia.

Nonetheless, the East StratCom Task Force’s capacity to deal with fake news coming from Russia has previously been a concern highlighted by the European Commission, whose former vice-president, Andrus Ansip, said that the budget for the body, currently at €5 million, is far from enough when compared to the resources the Russians have at their disposal.

Combating disinformation efforts has been high on the EU agenda for some time. The Commission’s voluntary code of practice against disinformation was introduced in October 2018, in a bid to combat fake news ahead of the 2019 European Parliament elections.

recent study on the code, however, commissioned by the EU executive, hit out at the self-regulatory nature of the framework, suggesting that sanctions should be put into place for platforms that fail to abide by the guidelines.

An evaluation of the code will be published later this year, as the bloc looks into further measures it can implement as part of new rules featured in the Digital Services Act and the Democracy Action Plan, the latter of which will hone in on disinformation in the context of external interference and manipulation in elections.

EU code of practice on disinformation 'insufficient and unsuitable,' member states say

A coalition of EU member states have hit out at the bloc’s efforts to stem the spread of disinformation, calling the self-regulatory framework currently in place “insufficient and unsuitable.”

[Edited by Sam Morgan]

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