Facebook Inc and Twitter Inc said on Thursday they had taken down a network of Russian-linked fake accounts operated out of Ghana and Nigeria which targeted the United States.
Facebook told reporters that the network, which it removed from Facebook and Instagram for engaging in foreign interference, was in the early stages of building audiences and was operated by local nationals, some wittingly and some unwittingly.
Facebook said its investigation found links to an NGO in Ghana called EBLA, or “Eliminating Barriers to the Liberation of Africa,” and individuals associated with past activity by Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), a St Petersburg-based “troll factory” that U.S. intelligence officials say aimed to interfere in the U.S. presidential election in 2016.
The accounts in the new takedown managed Facebook pages posing as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or personal blogs, or posting in Facebook groups. They focused on topics such as black history, black excellence and fashion, celebrity gossip, U.S. news and LGBTQ issues. They also shared content about oppression and police brutality.
“This activity did not appear to focus on elections, or promote or denigrate political candidates,” Facebook said in a blog post.
Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, told reporters on a conference call that the network’s technique appeared “to be attempting to create an NGO that had real-world people working for it on the ground in Ghana as a way to build legitimacy for their narratives and use that to message out.”
Twitter characterized the accounts as “attempting to sow discord by engaging in conversations about social issues, like race and civil rights.”
Social media companies have been under pressure to police foreign and domestic misinformation on their platforms, particularly since U.S. intelligence officials said that Russia used social media platforms for an influence operation aimed at electing President Donald Trump – a claim that Moscow has denied.
Reuters reported that U.S. intelligence and security officials this week were scheduled to tell Congress that Russian social media efforts were currently more directed at stirring up social divisiveness than promoting specific U.S. presidential candidates.
Among issues Russian trolls are seeking to exploit are gun control, ethnic group rivalries, tensions between police and local communities, and abortion, sources said.
In this latest takedown, the companies removed 49 Facebook accounts, 69 pages and 85 Instagram accounts, and 71 Twitter accounts.
Facebook said the network spent less than $5 on ads focused on people in the United States and that none were political or issue ads as the company’s system repeatedly rejected attempts to run such ads.