Sputnik news agency says it was engaged in legitimate promotion of its content, before Facebook took down hundreds of accounts it said were secretly run by its staff, following a tip-off from the NATO-backed Atlantic Council.
“The decision is clearly political in its nature and, as a matter of fact, is practically censorship — seven Facebook pages belonging to our news hubs in neighboring countries have been blocked,” the Russian media company said in a statement.
It specified that official pages such as Sputnik Moldova, Sputnik Uzbekistan, and Sputnik Azerbaijan have been taken down.
“Sputnik editorial offices deal with news and they do it well. If this blocking is Facebook’s only reaction to the quality of the media’s work, then we have no questions, everything is clear here. But there is still hope that common sense will prevail,” continued the statement from the company, which said that it left an enquiry with the social network.
On Thursday, Facebook removed 289 pages and 75 individual accounts that it said “misrepresented” themselves as “independent news Pages” before the company’s investigation “found that these Pages and accounts were linked to employees of Sputnik, a news agency based in Moscow, and that some of the Pages frequently posted about topics like anti-NATO sentiment, protest movements, and anti-corruption.”
According to Facebook, in total these accounts acquired 790,000 followers, spent $135,000 on advertising since 2013, and created 190 events which 1,200 users said they would attend. The pages posted “on topics like weather, travel, sports, economics, or politicians in Romania, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Russia, and Kyrgyzstan.”
Facebook said that the pages violated its “coordinated inauthentic behavior” guidelines, which ban “multiple accounts working together” to “mislead people about the origin of content,” though in numerous cases it appears that there was no attempt by pages to conceal that they were sharing Sputnik content.
“We have shared information about our investigation with US law enforcement, the US Congress, other technology companies, and policymakers in impacted countries,” said the California-headquartered social network.
The company also thanked “work by our partners who investigate this kind of activity.”
Ben Nimmo, a researcher at the Atlantic Council, and an employee of Integrity Initiative, the UK-backed undercover influence network, took to social media to claim credit for his organization, saying its Digital Forensic Research Lab first uncovered Sputnik-affiliated pages in Latvia late last year.
Facebook has previously been accused of censorship for making judgement calls on removing purported “inauthentic behavior,” while in actual fact selectively punishing pages promoting certain political views for using common online practices to popularize their content. The takedown of 800 pages promoting non-mainstream views on the eve of the US mid-terms last year brought forward an objection from the campaigning group ACLU on the basis of free speech.
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