Facebook reveals Russian troll content, shuts down 135 IRA accounts

Facebook is showing an unprecedented level of transparency around its latest effort to suspend Russian trolls trying to influence elections and mislead the public as it tries to regain the trust of users and the government. The company shared both stats about the account deletions and samples of the content they shared.

Facebook has removed 70 Facebook accounts, 138 Facebook Pages, and 65 Instagram accounts run by the Russian government-connected troll farm and election interference squad the Internet Research Agency. Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos cited the IRA’s use of “inauthentic accounts to deceive and manipulate people” as “why we don’t want them on Facebook. We removed this latest set of Pages and accounts solely because they were controlled by the IRA — not based on the content.”

95 percent of the accounts operated in Russian and targeted Russia or Russian-speakers in nearby countries including Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine. 1.08 million users followed at least one of the Facebook Pages, and 493,000 users followed at least one of the Instagram accounts. The accounts had spent a combined $167,000 on ads since the start of 2015.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote that since discovering the IRA’s election interference efforts, “we have improved our techniques to prevent nation states from interfering in foreign elections, and we’ve built more advanced AI tools to remove fake accounts more generally.” He went on to detail how Facebook is half-way to its promise to double its security and content review staff from 10,000 to 20,000 this year, with 15,000 now working on the efforts at Facebook.

“These efforts have all made it harder for nation states to interfere in foreign elections” Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook. “With today’s update, we have now identified a large network the IRA is using to manipulate people in Russia itself. This is the next step towards removing them from Facebook entirely.”

By detailing the specifics of its efforts rather than dragging its feet or waiting for government inquiries, Facebook may be able convince people it’s not asleep at the wheel of its social network.

Facebook at first said just 10 million users had seen ads bought by the IRA, but later explained that when organic un-paid posts were counted, 126 million people had seen the propaganda group’s Facebook posts and another 20 million had seen its Instagram posts. Facebook previously shut down the IRA’s 170 Instagram accounts that had shared 120,000 pieces of propaganda and 120 Facebook Page that had shared 80,000 pieces of content.

The trickle of information and initial low-ball numbers made it seem like Facebook was trying to downplay the severity of platform abuse. But in recent weeks since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, Facebook has seemed increasingly transparent and receptive to criticism. It seems the convergence of bad news has truly shaken Facebook awake.