“Peacedata” presented itself as a “young nonprofit news organization” based in Romania that was “focused on armed conflicts, corruption, environment crisis, abuse of power, activism, and human rights.”
But in a press conference on Tuesday, Facebook security chief Nathaniel Gleicher announced that the website and social-media accounts used to amplify its content were “connected to individuals associated with the [Internet Research Agency],” the St. Petersburg-based troll farm that operated the fake social-media personas involved in Russia’s 2016 election interference.
While most of the fake website’s content was focused on foreign audiences in the U.K., Algeria, and Egypt, some of Peacedata’s troll content focused on the U.S. and the 2020 election, including the “Biden-Harris campaign, QAnon, President Trump and his policies,” according to Facebook. The content targeted users “primarily on the left of the political spectrum.”
After the FBI tipped Facebook off to the Peacedata website’s Russian government association, Gleicher said a company investigation resulted in the suspension of 13 accounts and two pages used to hype the site’s content.
Peacedata operators tried to recruit unsuspecting freelancers to write content for the website in Arabic and English—a tactic increasingly used by Russian-linked trolls in a host of African countries to launder Russian propaganda. Other staff for the website were created out of thin air using a kind of artificial intelligence called “generative adversarial networks,” digitally-created pictures of people who don’t exist.
The website, created in February 2020, was “in the early stages of building its audience” with about 14,000 followers overall but only 200 for its English language Facebook page, according to the company. Peacedata trolls tried to use Facebook ads in order to reach a broader readership and spent about $480 on advertisements.
Separately, Facebook said it suspended dozens of fake accounts and pages on Facebook and Instagram run by the Washington, D.C.-based public-relations firm CLS Strategies for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a foreign entity. The accounts tied to CLS posted content in “support of the political opposition in Venezuela and the interim government in Bolivia, and criticism of Morena, a political party in Mexico.”
CLS Strategies recently registered as a foreign agent on behalf of the Bolivian government after the country ousted its left-wing president Evo Morales in November 2019.
The company spent $3.6 million on Facebook ads, and Facebook suspended a total of six accounts and 46 pages as well as an additional 36 additional Instagram accounts acting as sock puppets.
In a press call with reporters, Gleicher said that CLS would not be suspended entirely from Facebook’s platform but would be subject to increased scrutiny to prevent further abuse.