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Facebook has removed 276 accounts that used fake profiles to pose as right-leaning Americans and comment on news articles, often in favour of President Donald Trump, the company announced Thursday.

The platform also permanently banned an Arizona-based digital communications firm that it said was behind the fake accounts.

The move was prompted by reporting last month in The Washington Post that a pro-Trump group known as Turning Point Action was paying teenagers to post co-ordinated, supportive messages, a violation of Facebook’s rules.

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Facebook and Twitter have been regularly removing fake accounts – both domestic and foreign – that try to insert themselves in the U.S. political discourse and influence the election. But social made companies face broader threats around misinformation and voter suppression that at times come from President Donald Trump himself.

The latest network Facebook removed became active before the 2018 midterm elections and went dormant until June, when the accounts began posting on topics including the coronavirus pandemic, criticism of the Democratic Party and its nominee, former Vice-President Joe Biden, as well as praise for Trump and other Republicans.

Individuals behind the accounts used stock photos to create fake profiles, many of which were removed by Facebook’s automated detection software. Facebook determined that the accounts were being co-ordinated by Rally Forge, an Arizona-based firm.

“Although the people behind this network attempted to conceal their identities and co-ordination, our investigation linked this activity to Rally Forge,” Facebook said.

While Facebook’s investigation cited Rally Forge’s work for Turning Point USA, the work was actually performed on behalf of Turning Point Action, an independent political action committee, according to a statement from the organization. Turning Point Action added that it will work with Facebook “to rectify any misunderstanding” about its content.

Turning Point Action was founded last year by Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA, a Phoenix-based non-profit that recruits college students to advocate for conservative causes. The group posts memes and videos on its social media pages that support Trump and other conservative politicians. Trump and his son Donald Trump Jr. have also delivered speeches at Turning Point USA or Turning Point Action events, most recently during a June campaign rally in Phoenix.

Messages left with Rally Forge and Turning Point USA were not immediately returned Thursday.

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In all, 200 Facebook accounts, 55 pages and 76 Instagram accounts were removed. Facebook said the network had more than 370,000 followers on Facebook, and 22,000 on Instagram. While most of the fake profiles had posed as conservatives, Facebook said some pretended to be left-leaning in 2018.

Twitter, meanwhile, announced Thursday that it had suspended 104 accounts linked to an Iranian effort to amplify debates over the shooting of George Floyd and other issues of racial justice in the U.S.

The platform said that in some cases, the accounts had been hijacked from their original owners.

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