Facebook removes Ukraine political 'influence-for-hire' network


FILE PHOTO: A 3D printed Facebook logo is seen behind a padlock in this illustration picture taken May 4, 2021. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

(Reuters) - Facebook Inc has taken down a network of hundreds of fake accounts and pages targeting people in Ukraine and linked to individuals previously sanctioned by the United States for efforts to interfere in U.S. elections, the company said on Thursday.

Facebook said the network managed a long-running deceptive campaign across multiple social media platforms and other websites, posing as independent news outlets and promoting favorable content about Ukrainian politicians, including activity that was likely for hire. The company said it started its probe after a tip from the FBI.

Facebook attributed the activity to individuals and entities sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department including politician Andriy Derkach, a pro-Russian lawmaker who was blacklisted by the U.S. government in September over accusations he tried to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election won by President Joe Biden. Facebook said it removed Derkach's accounts in October 2020.

Derkach told Reuters he would comment on Facebook's investigation on Friday.

Facebook also attributed the network to political consultants associated with Ukrainian politicians Oleh Kulinich and Volodymyr Groysman, Ukraine's former prime minister. Kulinich did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Groysman could not immediately be reached for comment.

Facebook said that as well as promoting these politicians, the network also pushed positive material about actors across the political spectrum, likely as a paid service. It said the activity it investigated began around 2015, was solely focused on Ukraine, and posted anti-Russia content.

"You can really think of these operators as would-be influence mercenaries, renting out inauthentic online support in Ukrainian political circles," Ben Nimmo, Facebook's global influence operations threat intelligence lead, said on a call with reporters.

Facebook's investigation team said Ukraine, which has been among the top sources of "coordinated inauthentic behavior" that it removes from the site, is home to an increasing number of influence operations selling services.

Facebook said it removed 363 pages, which were followed by about 2.37 million accounts, and 477 accounts from this network for violating its rules. The network also spent about $496,000 in Facebook and Instagram ads, Facebook said.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Culliford in New York; Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets and Ilya Zhegulev in Kyiv; Editing by Kenneth Li, Chris Sanders and Daniel Wallis)

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