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Facebook busts Israeli company’s campaign to disrupt elections

JERUSALEM — Facebook said Thursday it banned an Israeli company that ran an influence campaign aimed at disrupting elections in various countries and has canceled dozens of accounts engaged in spreading disinformation.

Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, told reporters that the tech giant had purged 65 Israeli accounts, 161 pages, dozens of groups and four Instagram accounts.

Although Facebook said the individuals behind the network attempted to conceal their identities, it discovered that many were linked to the Archimedes Group, a Tel Aviv-based political consulting and lobbying firm that boasts of its social media skills and ability to “change reality.”

Gleicher said Facebook could not speculate about Archimedes’ motives, which “may be commercial or political or for some other strategic goal.”

But he said Facebook discovered “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” with accounts posing on behalf of certain political candidates, smearing their opponents and presenting as local news organizations peddling supposedly leaked information.

“Our team assessed that because this group is primarily organized to conduct deceptive behavior, we are removing them from the platform and blocking them from coming back,” said Gleicher.

The activity appeared focused on Sub-Saharan African countries but was also scattered in parts of Southeast Asia and Latin America.

The fake pages, pushing a steady stream of political news, racked up 2.8 million followers. Thousands of people expressed interest in attending at least one of the nine events organized by those behind the pages. Facebook could not confirm whether any of the events actually occurred. Some 5,000 accounts joined one or more of the fake groups.

Gleicher said the accounts primarily aimed to influence people in Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, Angola, Niger and Tunisia.

Facebook investigations revealed that Archimedes had spent some $800,000 on fake ads, paid for in Brazilian reals, Israeli shekels and U.S. dollars. He said the deceptive ads dated back to 2012, with the most recent activity occurring last month.

Facebook shared a few examples of the fake content, including one post mocking 2018 Congolese presidential candidate Martin Fayulu for crying foul play in the elections that vaulted Felix Tshisekedi to victory. Many governments and watchdog groups condemned the elections as rigged and declared Fayulu the rightful winner.

Facebook has come under pressure to more aggressively and transparently tackle misinformation aimed at sowing division and confusion around elections, since the revelation that Russia used Facebook to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Thursday’s disclosure, which Facebook pointed to as proof of its accelerating “progress rooting out abuse,” underscored the extent to which private actors are continuing to leverage the platform to meddle in elections and sway public discourse.

But the company’s efforts to fight fake accounts are “often made in great haste,” said Jonathan Klinger from the Israeli Digital Rights Movement, and if Archimedes does have legitimate links to political parties and candidates, Facebook can expect a legal battle.

On its website, Archimedes presents itself as a consulting firm involved in campaigns for presidential elections.

Little information is available beyond its slogan, which is “winning campaigns worldwide,” and a vague blurb about the group’s “mass social media management” software, which it said enabled the operation of an “unlimited” number of online accounts.

The site, featuring a montage of stock photos from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, boasts of its “own unique field within the social media realm” and its efforts to “take every advantage available in order to change reality according to our client’s wishes.”

A message seeking comment from the company was not immediately returned.

Archimedes’ chief executive is Elinadav Heymann, according to Swiss negotiations consultancy Negotiations.CH, where he is listed as one of the group’s consultants.

A biography posted to the company’s website describes Heymann as the former director of the Brussels-based European Friends of Israel lobbying group, a former political adviser in Israel’s parliament and an ex-intelligence agent for the Israeli air force.

Heymann did not return messages left with Daniel Hardegger, Negotions.CH’s managing director. Shortly after The Associated Press got in touch, Hardegger said that Heymann requested that his biography be removed from the site.

Satter reported from London.

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