Facebook Removes Kremlin-Linked Accounts That Pushed For Release of Russian Operative Maxim Shugaley

The accounts were part of a successful campaign to free Shugaley from a Libyan prison after he was arrested on election-meddling charges.

Now-deleted Facebook page for Russian feature film Shugaley 2 (source)

Via “Stoking Conflict by Keystroke: An Operation Run by IRA-Linked Individuals Targeting Libya, Sudan, and Syria” by Shelby Grossman, Khadeja Ramali, Renée DiResta, Lucas Beissner, Samantha Bradshaw, William Healzer, and Ira Hubert, Stanford Internet Observatory/Graphika, December 15, 2020:

The takedown included a Facebook Page (primarily in Arabic) and Instagram account (primarily in Russian) devoted to a film recounting Russia’s version of the circumstances surrounding the arrest and imprisonment of Russian sociologist Maksim Shugalei (Максим Шугалей) and his translator Samir Seifan in Libya in July 2019. In the “action thriller” film version of events, Shugalei and his interpreter were in Libya on a research mission sponsored by the Foundation for National Values Protection when they uncovered “inconvenient” truths. Because they knew too much, they were arrested, tortured, and thrown in jail by a “puppet government” on completely false charges of meddling in the Libyan election.

In the Western press and the GNA’s version of events, Shugalei and his interpreter were working for people linked to the very same Russian troll farm to which the operations in this takedown have been attributed. Shugalei is a political strategist, a “gun for hire” (per the BBC) who has worked on multiple elections in Russia and achieved some prior media notoriety in 2002 when he ate documents rather than hand them over to a judge during an election dispute. He was, the Libyan government claims, in Libya as part of a Russia-linked operation to promote the political rise of Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, the son of former Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi.

The Foundation for National Values Protection, which is helmed by Alexander Malkievich, head of the IRA and RIA-FAN-linked “news” organization USAReally, fundraised to produce the film. Reporting has found that the copyright for the film is held by Aurum LLC, one of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s many endeavors, which have additionally included founding, funding, owning, or being generally involved with the IRA, RIA-FAN, and the Wagner Group. Shugalei aired on Russian state media property RT’s documentary channel. The film, promoted in the Facebook and Instagram Pages bearing its name, was one of numerous made-for-media moments intended to call attention to Shugalei’s plight; others included having him elected in absentia to a regional parliament seat in Russia (the campaign was reportedly funded by Prigozhin), placing sponsored content about the situation in the Washington Post, having Maria Butina (who pled guilty to conspiracy to act as an illegal foreign agent in the United States) run a one-woman protest outside of the Libyan embassy in Russia, and having Charlie Sheen and other duped American actors record messages of support for Shugalei via the paid app Cameo.

The Instagram and Facebook Pages related to Shugalei were primarily marketing communications for the film, and for its sequel, Shugalei-2. Both parts are presently available, including English-dubbed versions, on YouTube. Part 1 of the dubbed version, “Shugalei | A harrowing yet true story of Russian researchers imprisoned by terrorists” has received 748,305 views, and Part 2, “Shugalei-2 | Russian sociologists got involved in the Libyan government’s political game” has received 1,008,796. The Instagram account primarily posted images from the film; there was a promotional hashtag campaign associated with the film in which individuals, and influencers, photographed themselves wearing t-shirts depicting a still from the film. The Facebook Page had 103 posts overall, and included regular updates detailing Malkievich and the Foundation’s efforts to pressure Libya into releasing Shugalei and Seifan, as well as quotes about the matter from prominent Russian figures such as Vladimir Putin and Alexander Dugin.

The removals were part of a larger crackdown on “coordinated inauthentic behavior” by foreign government-linked entities, as Facebook announced in a separate statement on its site yesterday (Twitter also removed roughly 30 accounts that participated in the Shugaley campaign, according to Stanford’s report):

Today we removed three separate networks for violating our policy against foreign or government interference which is coordinated inauthentic behavior (CIB) on behalf of a foreign or government entity. These networks originated in France and Russia and targeted multiple countries in North Africa and the Middle East.

In each case, the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts as a central part of their operations to mislead people about who they are and what they are doing, and that was the basis for our action…

1. We removed 84 Facebook accounts, 6 Pages, 9 Groups and 14 Instagram accounts for violating our policy against coordinated inauthentic behavior. This activity originated in France and targeted primarily the Central African Republic and Mali, and to a lesser extent Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Cote d’Ivoire and Chad…

2. We also removed 63 Facebook accounts, 29 Pages, 7 Groups and 1 Instagram account for coordinated inauthentic behavior. This network originated in Russia and focused primarily on the Central African Republic (CAR), and to a lesser extent on Madagascar, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Mozambique, South Africa and the CAR diaspora in France…

3. We also removed 211 Facebook accounts, 126 Page, 16 Groups and 17 Instagram accounts for coordinated inauthentic behavior. This network originated in Russia and focused primarily on Libya, Sudan and Syria.

In September, Facebook appeared to remove two paid ads for the Shugaley sequel from its platform and from the Instagram account mentioned in Stanford’s report.

Here is a screenshot of the now-deleted ads:

The ads were removed after I contacted Facebook while researching a story I co-authored with Foreign Policy’s National Security and Intelligence reporter Amy Mackinnon, “How Russia Tried to Weaponize Charlie Sheen,” also cited in Stanford’s report.

In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson told me that any individuals associated with the Russian Internet Research Agency are banned from Facebook as part of its coordinated inauthentic behaviour enforcement. The spokesperson declined to share the names and contact information of the person or entity who placed the ads, citing privacy reasons.

The Russian-language Facebook page for the Shugaley film is still online. Facebook’s “Page transparency” feature states that two people from Russia currently manage the page.

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Facebook Mislabels Historically Accurate Posts by Gay Rights Campaigner Peter Tatchell as “Partly False”

Tatchell correctly identified Henry Kissinger as the architect of an illegal U.S. bombing campaign that potentially killed hundreds of thousands of Cambodians. Facebook’s fact-checkers disagreed.

Update, November 24, 2020: Facebook has removed its disclaimer from Tatchell’s posts, but did not return a request for comment.

British gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has long been a thorn in the side of Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. Secretary of State under Richard Nixon. In 2002, for example, Tatchell attempted to have Kissinger arrested and tried for Nixon’s illegal bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, which historians estimate resulted in civilian and military deaths upwards of 300,000.

As Tatchell recounted in two identical posts on Facebook and Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) yesterday:

[Kissinger] had authorised the mass indiscriminate bombing of Cambodia in the early 1970s, which killed possibly hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. The judge accepted that there was a potential legal case against Kissinger and even discussed with me where he could be held on remand awaiting trial. But in the end the court doubted that I had the capacity to bring former Nixon administration officials to London to testify as to Kissinger’s culpability. I did not succeed but only on the matter of being able to secure witness testimony in London.

Historical texts and news reports appear to support that: Kissinger was a key architect of the Cambodian bombing campaigns; that estimated casualties, while difficult to calculate with any precision, were likely in the hundreds of thousands; and that Tatchell brought a legal case against Kissinger in 2002, which was thrown out due to the presiding judge’s “serious misgivings” over Tatchell’s ability to secure evidence in the form of witness testimony.

Despite containing seemingly accurate information, Tatchell’s posts were restricted by Facebook’s fact-checking team and given the following boilerplate disclaimer: “Partly false information. The same information was checked in another post by independent fact-checkers.”

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The disclaimer doesn’t identify which aspects of Tatchell’s posts are allegedly false, merely stating: “Only two of the quotes here are close to correct.”

But it does contain a link to an April 15, 2019 article by Facebook’s partnered fact-checking website FactCheck.org, “What Kissinger Has Said About Trump,” which says nothing about Kissinger’s role in the bombing of Cambodia or Tatchell’s 2002 legal case.

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I’ve asked Facebook for comment.

In the meantime, Tatchell has posted on Instagram about the errant fact-check:

“Hi Everyone. @instagram is flagging my post earlier today about Henry Kissinger as ‘partly false’ on the grounds that Kissinger did not say certain things that I supposedly claimed he said about #Trump. But I never mentioned Trump or anything that #Kissinger may have said about Trump. I was highlighting the evidence that Kissinger authorised war crimes in #Cambodia in the 1970s. Algorithms gone mad? #instagram should apologise and remove the flag from my post. So far they have not :-(“

Cambridge Analytica-Linked Data Company Behind Trump Phone-Canvassing Campaign

GOP-funded websites managed by data-mining firm Bridgetree, Inc. allowed users to canvass for Trump in key states such as Pennsylvania.

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In an effort to rally support for incumbent Donald J. Trump in the lead-up to election day, the Republican National Committee hired a data-harvesting firm whose services were once sought by Cambridge Analytica, the disgraced U.K. political consulting company behind Trump’s 2016 electoral campaign.

Bridgetree, Inc., based in Fort Mill, South Carolina, has been driving votes for Trump in battleground states going back as far as April this year, via the websites TrumpTalk.gop and TrumpTalk20.gop. The sites allowed users to “make calls to Americans across our great country” by “[turning] your computer into a anonymous phone system,” according to a Facebook post by Edwin Boyette, Vice Chair of Communications for the Hawaii Republican Party.

Once logged in, users were given access to a database of voter information (including full names, phone numbers, and addresses), then instructed to call voters to ask them to vote for Trump using scripted questions, such as “can President Trump […] count on you to vote early?” and “will you commit [to] vote absentee for President Trump?” Calls could be placed automatically from one voter to the next using the communications system LiveVox, with seemingly no oversight.

The sites were “Paid for by the Republican National Committee,” and directed users to “please contact us at gophelp@bridgetree.com.”

Here is a video tutorial by Bridgetree explaining the process for calling voters:

Bridgetree’s association with the two Trump Talk sites was first highlighted in a Twitter thread by disinformation researcher @DivestTrump. Bridgetree’s “advertised focus,” @DivestTrump notes, was “Operation Keystone,” a “massive grassroots […] phone-banking effort” in which “the fate of Pennsylvania” was said to “[hang] between the raging forces of good and the evil communists,” according to a pseudonymous post on TheDonald.win, named after the recently banned subreddit.

As of publication, Biden is leading in Pennsylvania with a clear path to the presidency.

Services listed on Bridgetree’s site include “NextGen microtargeting” and “data acquisition,” which involves “[multi-sourcing, combining and scraping data] in a unique manner that delivers the most accurate, robust and relevant information to deliver optimal results.” “Operation Keystone” is not listed among the site’s case studies.

A poorly reviewed app version of the Trump Talk service is currently available to download on the Google Play store. The app’s developers are listed as Bridgetree and Advantage, Inc., a Republican strategy firm based in Alexandria, VA, which has published an instruction manual on how to use the Trump Talk service.

Here are promotional screenshots of the app in action:

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Bridgetree’s association with Cambridge Analytica was brought to light in emails leaked by Brittany Kaiser, Cambridge Analytica’s former business development director. In one email dated February 2, 2016, Bridgetree’s business development manager Tom Boschwitz told Cambridge Analytica he could provide data scraped from Facebook and other sources in service of Ted Cruz’s 2016 failed presidential bid. The recipient of that email, Matt Oczkowski — then Cambridge Analytica’s head of product — joined Trump’s 2020 campaign earlier this year.

Cambridge Analytica’s shady tactics in support of Trump’s 2016 campaign were exposed in an undercover investigation by Britain’s Channel 4, which determined that the company had scraped data from millions of profiles without users’ consent. The company later pleaded guilty to violating U.K. data laws.

Facebook Continues to Host Political Ads from Chinese Communist Party Mouthpiece

The ads comprise two videos from the Global Times defending China’s crackdown on political protests and attacking the Trump administration’s botched response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Update, August 28, 2020: The two Global Times ads have been removed from Facebook’s ad library. A message reads: “This ad is no longer available in the library. This can happen when an ad has expired or has been deleted, or when it’s incorrectly categorised as an ad about social issues, elections or politics.” Facebook has not returned a request for comment.

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In April, the Daily Telegraph reported that the Global Times, an English-language adjunct of the People’s Daily, the official newspaper and mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, had flooded “Facebook and Instagram with undisclosed political adverts whitewashing its role in the coronavirus pandemic and pinning blame on Donald Trump.”

The ads “initially ran without a political disclaimer, allowing them to hide information about who they were targeting and sometimes letting them sidestep Facebook’s strict rules on political advertising,” according to the Telegraph.

Facebook subsequently removed the ads and added a disclaimer, in accordance with the site’s decision to add labels to state-controlled media. But that hasn’t stopped the Global Times from continuing to run political ads on Facebook.

The new ads comprise two August 10 videos from the Global Times’ editor-in-chief Hu Xijin, who hosts an opinionated video series called “Hu Says.” Facebook doesn’t disclose how much money the Global Times paid Facebook for running the ads, or the potential reach of the audience the ads are aimed at.

In the first of the two videos, Hu tries to defend the high-profile arrests of 10 Chinese pro-democracy activists who were detained in Hong Kong on Monday under China’s new national security law, which has been widely denounced as a blatant attempt by the Chinese government to quash ongoing anti-government protests.

The arrests include media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who is accused of colluding with foreign forces, among other charges.

“In my opinion, this arrest sends a strong signal,” Hu says in the video. “The Hong Kong SAR government has not been intimidated by the series of US sanctions, including those against [Chief Executive of Hong Kong] Carrie Lam and other senior officials of the Hong Kong government” (for allegedly “undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy and restricting the freedom of expression or assembly of the citizens of Hong Kong,” according to an August 7 press release by U.S. Treasury Department).

Hong Kong’s protests began last June, against plans that would have allowed the Chinese government to extradite dissidents to mainland China. According to Hu, these protests are actually “violent demonstrations” that “have severely hit the city and endangered China’s national security.”

“China will not allow such rioting to continue,” Hu says in the video. “Let them shift to US cities like Portland.”

Toward the end of the video, Hu complains that “Violent demonstrations in the US are called riots but the ones in Hong Kong are called democratic protests. The Chinese people have already felt sick of this double standard from Washington. We will not put our attention on the attitude of Washington and the West before restoring order in Hong Kong.”

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Hu’s complaints about Washington continue in the second video, in which he says “that for the Trump administration, the challenge China poses is more serious than the coronavirus,” and that “this absurd practice of Washington seems to work.”

From the video:

Five million people have been infected and 160,00 people have died. The government has done nothing about it and many Americans have accepted it. In addition, the Trump admin said that TikTok poses security risks and China’s actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang threaten the U.S. They are convincing people that these issues are obviously greater threats than the coronavirus and require an emergency response from the U.S.

Other recent ads from the Global Times include a viral video titled “Can’t believe this is a dog!” which shows a fluffy dog balancing on a basketball, riding a children’s scooter, and driving a toy car.

I’ve asked Facebook for comment.

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The Russian Troll Factory is Recruiting English-Speaking Journalists to Fight “Political Censorship” After Facebook Ban

The “Wake up, America!” campaign will “focus on promoting information and problems that are hushed up by major American publications controlled by the US political elite”

It’s been a rough couple of months for the Internet Research Agency (IRA).

In February, 13 members of the so-called “Russian troll factory” were indicted for allegedly interfering in the 2016 U.S. election. Since then, the company has been banned from various social media platforms, including Facebook and Instagram.

But now the IRA is fighting back with the launch of its “Wake up, America!” campaign, which promises to challenge “the hegemony of the US authorities” by “promoting information and problems that are hushed up by major American publications controlled by the US political elite.”

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The campaign was announced last week via the Federal News Agency (FAN), a pro-Kremlin website that has been traced back to the IRA by open-source researcher Lawrence Alexander.

Russian news websites including RBK Group and The Moscow Times have also published stories linking FAN to the IRA.

“Due to the growing political censorship imposed by the United States, there remains less and less of information sources that are not under control of the US authorities,” reads an announcement on the FAN website. “In this regard, US citizens cannot receive objective and independent information about events occurring on the territory of America and throughout the world.”

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The website is currently recruiting English-speaking journalists to work on the campaign, inviting applicants to “send your CVs to america@riafan.ru with the subject ‘Wake up, America.’”

When I enquired about the position using a fake name, I got this message from FAN’s director Evgeny Zubarev (the message was in Russian, translated here using Google Translate):

Good afternoon.
We received your resume. It will be considered in a reasonable time and we will notify you of the results.
Yours faithfully,
Director General of FAN LLC Evgeny Zubarev.

Meanwhile, IRA trolls, apparently unhappy with being banned from Facebook and Instagram, are busy promoting the campaign on LiveJournal.

One post, published under the pseudonym “Vandro,” said that “Facebook had launched a war against Russian newsmen,” and accused the social network of conspiring with the U.S. government.

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Another post, published under the pseudonym “kyxapka,” speculated about the mental health of Mark Zuckerberg, accusing the Facebook founder of following “the will of his political rulers.”

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A third post, published under the pseudonym “qkempek,” accused the U.S. government of “trying to deprive the audience of many thousands of opportunities to receive relevant and resonant news from the Russian Federation and the world from the media, which speak about it honestly and openly.”

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A database of the IRA’s LiveJournal accounts was obtained by Russian newspaper My Area (MR7.ru) in 2015.

Click here to read more stories from inside the Russian troll factory.

Hates Speech

Former BBC Wales Head of Public Affairs Leighton Andrews calls for European regulation of Facebook and Google

Leighton Andrews, the former Head of Public Affairs for BBC Wales, has called for European law makers to regulate U.S. Internet giants Facebook and Google.

Former Head of Public Affairs for BBC Wales, Leighton Andrews (source)

In two similarly worded articles on Open Democracy UK and Medium, Andrews argued that Facebook and Google are media companies, and should therefore be subject to stringent rules regarding antitrust issues, content, branding and “hate speech.”

Via “Europe should regulate Facebook and Google” by Leighton Andrews, Medium, December 9, 2016.

As well as their dominance of advertising, the two ‘titans’…have become the dominant news distributors as well. 44% of US adults get their news via Facebook according to the Pew Research Centre having taken over as the top news referrer from Google in 2015 according to the traffic analytics site parse.ly. At least originating news organisations get to keep their branding in the Google News app: in the Facebook News Feed, as Alex Hern pointed out in the Guardian, there’s no branding difference between fake news sites and established and respected news outlets…meaning that fake news can vie with real news for top spots.

Via “We need European regulation of Facebook and Google” by Leighton Andrews, Open Democracy UK, December 12, 2016.

What is needed is the necessary strategic alliance between other media companies, civil society organisations and academic specialists to drive an agenda forward to address the powers of internet intermediaries, in terms of content rules, competition issues and their dominance of the advertising markets which as we have seen has had the effect of undermining the newspaper industry in particular…

…Moving forward, there needs to be a coordinated and sustainable lobby at a European level, involving media organisations, advertisers, civic society organisations, and academic specialists interested in media policy to create the space for legislative action

– In defence of facts on digital advertising metrics
– In defence of facts in news reporting and/or attribution
– In defence of the rule of law (for example German hate speech laws)

Assuming Brexit goes ahead, and the UK does want a relationship akin to the EEA, then it’s likely it will have to adhere in practice to EU Media laws. EU legislation may be our last, best hope for effective action. There’s a thing.

I’ll leave it to the experts to debate the merits of antitrust regulation, but I can’t sit still for Andrews’ arguments in favour of controlling content, branding and “hate speech.”

Unlike the U.S., the EU famously doesn’t have a strong constitutional guarantee regarding freedom of speech or of the press. Consequently, countries within Europe have implemented a number of vague laws targeting political speech under the pretext of national security, racial and religious tolerance, and even women’s rights.

“Hate speech” is an especially meaningless term which has nevertheless been adopted by many European countries to punish unpopular speech. Just this month, Dutch politician and prominent Eurosceptic Geert Wilders was found guilty of hate speech by a Dutch court after he called for “fewer Moroccans” in the country.

Far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders (source)

While you might not agree with Wilders’ comments or sympathise with his worldview, the point is that the legal concept of “hate speech” is sufficiently vague to encompass all kinds of political speech, not just unpopular words and ideas.

The arbitrary nature of hate speech laws and other, equally vague speech laws have proven controversial in some EU member states.

There was outrage earlier this year when – at the whim of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – Germany agreed to prosecute prominent German satirist Jan Böhmermann, who had ridiculed the Turkish despot on national televisionAfter all, what kind of democracy prosecutes its satirists?

Yet the decision should not have come as a surprise. Germany has long placed limits on “insulting” speech, in agreement with the various rulings handed down by the European Court of Human Rights.

As Hamburg international media law expert Dr. Ralph Oliver Graef told The Intercept in April: “If you agree that hate speech at a certain level is punishable, then you have to be open to the idea that some things are not allowed to be said, even about a dictator.”

German satirist Jan Böhmermann on the cover of Der Spiegel (source)

Not wishing to succumb to the logical fallacy of the slippery slope, it’s easy to see where regulation of the media – and of speech in general – might lead. Just look to Turkey, where journalists are routinely prosecuted for reporting unfavourably about the government, and satirists are no longer free to openly ridicule those in power.

Is this what we want for our media or for our own hard-won freedoms? Personally, I’m with Welsh YouTuber Bill Hilton, who tweeted this response to Andrews’ Medium article:

leighton-andrews-bill-hilton-exchange