Facebook targets group manipulating Pakistani audiences, removes accounts and pages

Facebook removed at least 40 accounts, 25 pages, six groups and 28 Instagram accounts “targeting primarily domestic audiences in Pakistan” in May for violating its “coordinated inauthentic behavior policy”, the company said in its report.

“This network originated in and targeted primarily domestic audiences in Pakistan, in addition to also focusing on English, Arabic and Pashto-speaking audiences globally,” the report read.

The company, which owns Instagram and WhatsApp, revealed that the network used “fake accounts” to post and manage content, in an attempt to drive people to their other social media channels.

“Some of these pages posed as international news entities and frequently shared what appears to be original video content,” the company said.

The network, according to Facebook, posted about news and current events in the region, including Covid-19, criticism of India’s treatment of Muslims, particularly in Kashmir.

What is Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour?

Facebook describes Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour as an attempt to mislead or manipulate people for a “strategic goal” by using fake accounts.

The company acts against domestic, non-government, foreign and government campaigns aimed at manipulating public debate.

“When we find domestic, non-government campaigns that include groups of accounts and pages seeking to mislead people about who they are and what they are doing while relying on fake accounts, we remove both inauthentic and authentic accounts, pages and groups directly involved in this activity,” the company said.

How much money did this network spend on advertising?

The network spent $40,000 for ads on Facebook and Instagram and the money was primarily paid in US dollars, the company disclosed.

These Facebook pages had about 800,000 followers and around 1,200 people joined one or more of these groups on the social media platform. It had about 2,400 followers on its multiple Instagram accounts.

Who is behind this network?

In a similar operation targeting inauthentic behavior in 2019, the company had removed 103 pages, groups and accounts on Facebook and Instagram.

Facebook said that network was using fake accounts to “operate military fan pages, general Pakistani interest pages and Kashmir community pages” and they frequently posted about topics such as Indian government, political leaders and military.

“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found that it was linked to employees of the ISPR (Inter-Service Public Relations) of the Pakistani military,” the report had said. The ISPR did not respond to the Facebook report.

In its 2019 operation, Facebook had also removed over 1,000 pages associated with an “IT Cell of the Indian National Congress” and of individuals linked with Silver Touch IT firm.

AlphaPro says the ISPR and PAF helped the company made a documentary on Operation Swift Retort. (YouTube Screenshot)

AlphaPro says the ISPR and PAF helped the company made a documentary on Operation Swift Retort. (YouTube Screenshot)

In its May 2021 report, Facebook said its investigation aided by researchers at Graphika found links of a Pakistan PR firm, AlphaPro, with individuals behind the network.

The company, which identified itself as a digital media firm, has termed the allegations “baseless”. Its managing director, Adeel Ayub, told SAMAA Digital that AlphaPro will respond to these accusations in a day or two.

Ayub said the ISPR was not among the company’s clients. But its website mentions the ISPR as one of its clients.

AlphaPro mentions the ISPR as one of its clients on its website. (Screenshot)

He said the ISPR and the Pakistan Air Force did help make his company a documentary on Operation Swift Retort.

The documentary film, Invincible Resolve, was made by AlphaPro on the February 2019 dogfight between Pakistan and India over Kashmir.

Facebook has deleted his personal account for posts favouring Pakistan and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, Ayub said.

“They (Facebook) say we post in favour of the CPEC and our own country,” he said. “Who doesn’t do that?”

SAMAA Digital made repeated attempts to contact representatives of the ISPR for comment but didn’t receive any response till the filing of this report. The story will be update when they do respond.

Arslan Khalid, focal person to Prime Minister Imran Khan, said the federal government has not worked with Digital PR firm because it doesn’t have a policy to outsource its digital projects.

“Let alone AlphaPro, we have never outsourced any digital media project to any agency,” he told SAMAA Digital over phone.



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