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    Facebook Removes Russia’s Internet Research Agency

    Facebook Inc. took down recently created accounts and pages linked to a Russian group that U.S. authorities have accused of interfering in the 2016 presidential election, the social-media giant said Tuesday. The detection of the operation ahead of November elections show that the Internet Research Agency, a "troll farm" indicted by federal authorities in 2018, remains a thorn in Facebook's side.

    But the company said the recent effort's small reach -- totaling 13 accounts and two pages -- shows Facebook is getting better at detecting foreign political manipulation efforts before such content spreads widely. Facebook revealed the takedown in a report Tuesday, the latest of several efforts to improve the quality of its platforms. Assisting in the effort was Graphika, an independent research firm that contracts with Facebook on investigations into foreign social-media manipulation.

    The Russian-led networks were less significant than the IRA's past efforts to sow discord on Facebook, said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook's head of security, during a conference call with journalists. "Their operational security has improved, but their impact is getting smaller," he said. "For all their increased efforts, they're not being terribly successful."

    The Internet Research Agency, or IRA, in St. Petersburg, Russia, where Russian journalist Vitaly Bespalov worked. Credit: Charles Maynes/PRI
    Mr. Gleicher said the Russian group used English but largely targeted foreign audiences and had a small following. It failed to get Facebook's approval to run U.S. ads, he said. Much of its efforts were tied to a website called PeaceData.net, for which the IRA allegedly tried to recruit freelance journalists as writers.

    The U.S. intelligence community has determined Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential election to help Donald Trump win the White House, and officials warned last month of a broad Russian effort to damage Democratic nominee Joe Biden's bid for the presidency this year. Russia has denied interfering in American elections. The Russian embassy in Washington didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on Facebook's announcement.

    Facebook was among several U.S. tech giants criticized in a report released last year by the U.S. Senate committee for helping to spread misinformation during the 2016 presidential campaign. More recently Facebook has been under fire from civil-rights advocates that allege the company has done too little to police hateful and other problematic content. In July groups including the Anti-Defamation League and the NAACP enlisted hundreds of companies to halt spending on Facebook's platforms to pressure it to do more.

    Facebook has acknowledged some shortcomings and pointed to new policies, additional spending and other efforts to address the groups' concerns. The company has said it has more than 35,000 people working on safety and security -- many with expertise in law enforcement, national security, counterterrorism intelligence and academic research in radicalization.

    In the new report, Facebook said it removed three large networks of accounts, Pages and Groups for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior, bringing the total number of networks it has removed since 2017 to more than 100. The first network it removed was from the IRA and so was the latest, the company said, adding that overall it has identified about a dozen deceptive campaigns associated with the Russian organization alone.

    Facebook said it began looking into the IRA after receiving information from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "We consider strategic engagement with U.S. technology companies, which includes sharing threat indicators, to be critically important in combating malign foreign influence actors," an FBI spokeswoman said.

    Facebook said in its report that each takedown makes it more difficult for manipulators to thrive on its platforms. A spokesman for the company declined to comment further.

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