Facebook removed hundreds of pages on Thursday it said masqueraded as independent news sites in eastern Europe and elsewhere but were actually run by employees at Russian state-owned news agency Sputnik.
The takedown is the latest in a series of actions taken by the social media giant against Russian disinformation. Last February, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted a Russian troll group for conspiracy to defraud the United States. The group had posed as Americans on Facebook.
Facebook said the 364 pages and accounts removed Thursday had almost 800,000 followers and had spent around $135,000 on ads on the platform between October 2013 and this month.
The countries targeted included Romania, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Georgia, and Moldova. The pages frequently promoted anti-NATO sentiment and protest movements, Facebook said, reports CNN.
The pages used false identities to help them appear authentic. One group of pages was controlled by a Facebook user who claimed to be a woman living in Tbilisi, Georgia. The Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, which helps Facebook identify fake accounts, found that the photographs on the profile had actually been taken from a Swedish model's social media accounts.
The pages also promoted almost 200 events. Facebook said it could not confirm if any of them actually took place.
Sputnik's partner company, RIA Global LLC, is registered as a foreign agent in the United States.
In a statement Thursday, Sputnik said Facebook's action was "practically censorship."
"The decision is clearly political in its nature and is practically censorship — seven [Facebook] pages belonging to our news hubs in neighboring countries have been blocked," the statement said.
The Digital Forensic Research Lab found that the deception wasn't limited to news content. One page was devoted to travel in Latvia, while another was devoted to fans of the president of Tajikistan.
Image credit: CNN