Thousands of fake Facebook accounts shut down by Meta were primed to polarize voters ahead of 2024

Attendees visit the Meta booth at the Game Developers Conference 2023 in San Francisco on March 22, 2023. (AP/File)
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Updated 30 November 2023
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Thousands of fake Facebook accounts shut down by Meta were primed to polarize voters ahead of 2024

  • The network of nearly 4,800 fake accounts hints at serious threats posed by online disinformation 
  • National elections will occur in the US, Pakistan, India, Ukraine, Taiwan and other nations next year 

WASHINGTON: Someone in China created thousands of fake social media accounts designed to appear to be from Americans and used them to spread polarizing political content in an apparent effort to divide the US ahead of next year’s elections, Meta said Thursday. 

The network of nearly 4,800 fake accounts was attempting to build an audience when it was identified and eliminated by the tech company, which owns Facebook and Instagram. The accounts sported fake photos, names and locations as a way to appear like everyday American Facebook users weighing in on political issues. 

Instead of spreading fake content as other networks have done, the accounts were used to reshare posts from X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that were created by politicians, news outlets and others. The interconnected accounts pulled content from both liberal and conservative sources, an indication that its goal was not to support one side or the other but to exaggerate partisan divisions and further inflame polarization. 

The newly identified network shows how America’s foreign adversaries exploit US-based tech platforms to sow discord and distrust, and it hints at the serious threats posed by online disinformation next year, when national elections will occur in the US, India, Mexico, Ukraine, Pakistan, Taiwan and other nations. 

“These networks still struggle to build audiences, but they’re a warning,” said Ben Nimmo, who leads investigations into inauthentic behavior on Meta’s platforms. “Foreign threat actors are attempting to reach people across the Internet ahead of next year’s elections, and we need to remain alert.” 

Meta Platforms Inc., based in Menlo Park, California, did not publicly link the Chinese network to the Chinese government, but it did determine the network originated in that country. The content spread by the accounts broadly complements other Chinese government propaganda and disinformation that has sought to inflate partisan and ideological divisions within the US 

To appear more like normal Facebook accounts, the network would sometimes post about fashion or pets. Earlier this year, some of the accounts abruptly replaced their American-sounding user names and profile pictures with new ones suggesting they lived in India. The accounts then began spreading pro-Chinese content about Tibet and India, reflecting how fake networks can be redirected to focus on new targets. 

Meta often points to its efforts to shut down fake social media networks as evidence of its commitment to protecting election integrity and democracy. But critics say the platform’s focus on fake accounts distracts from its failure to address its responsibility for the misinformation already on its site that has contributed to polarization and distrust. 

For instance, Meta will accept paid advertisements on its site to claim the US election in 2020 was rigged or stolen, amplifying the lies of former President Donald Trump and other Republicans whose claims about election irregularities have been repeatedly debunked. Federal and state election officials and Trump’s own attorney general have said there is no credible evidence that the presidential election, which Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden, was tainted. 

When asked about its ad policy, the company said it is focusing on future elections, not ones from the past, and will reject ads that cast unfounded doubt on upcoming contests. 

And while Meta has announced a new artificial intelligence policy that will require political ads to bear a disclaimer if they contain AI-generated content, the company has allowed other altered videos that were created using more conventional programs to remain on its platform, including a digitally edited video of Biden that claims he is a pedophile. 

“This is a company that cannot be taken seriously and that cannot be trusted,” said Zamaan Qureshi, a policy adviser at the Real Facebook Oversight Board, an organization of civil rights leaders and tech experts who have been critical of Meta’s approach to disinformation and hate speech. “Watch what Meta does, not what they say.” 

Meta executives discussed the network’s activities during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, the day after the tech giant announced its policies for the upcoming election year — most of which were put in place for prior elections. 

But 2024 poses new challenges, according to experts who study the link between social media and disinformation. Not only will many large countries hold national elections, but the emergence of sophisticated AI programs means it’s easier than ever to create lifelike audio and video that could mislead voters. 

“Platforms still are not taking their role in the public sphere seriously,” said Jennifer Stromer-Galley, a Syracuse University professor who studies digital media. 

Stromer-Galley called Meta’s election plans “modest” but noted it stands in stark contrast to the “Wild West” of X. Since buying the X platform, then called Twitter, Elon Musk has eliminated teams focused on content moderation, welcomed back many users previously banned for hate speech and used the site to spread conspiracy theories. 

Democrats and Republicans have called for laws addressing algorithmic recommendations, misinformation, deepfakes and hate speech, but there’s little chance of any significant regulations passing ahead of the 2024 election. That means it will fall to the platforms to voluntarily police themselves. 

Meta’s efforts to protect the election so far are “a horrible preview of what we can expect in 2024,” according to Kyle Morse, deputy executive director of the Tech Oversight Project, a nonprofit that supports new federal regulations for social media. “Congress and the administration need to act now to ensure that Meta, TikTok, Google, X, Rumble and other social media platforms are not actively aiding and abetting foreign and domestic actors who are openly undermining our democracy.” 

Many of the fake accounts identified by Meta this week also had nearly identical accounts on X, where some of them regularly retweeted Musk’s posts. 

Those accounts remain active on X. A message seeking comment from the platform was not returned. 

Meta also released a report Wednesday evaluating the risk that foreign adversaries including Iran, China and Russia would use social media to interfere in elections. The report noted that Russia’s recent disinformation efforts have focused not on the US but on its war against Ukraine, using state media propaganda and misinformation in an effort to undermine support for the invaded nation. 

Nimmo, Meta’s chief investigator, said turning opinion against Ukraine will likely be the focus of any disinformation Russia seeks to inject into America’s political debate ahead of next year’s election. 

“This is important ahead of 2024,” Nimmo said. “As the war continues, we should especially expect to see Russian attempts to target election-related debates and candidates that focus on support for Ukraine.” 


Finance firms urge ambitious action on plastic pollution

Updated 19 April 2024
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Finance firms urge ambitious action on plastic pollution

  • Curtailing the estimated 400 million metric tonnes of waste produced every year is a crucial part of efforts to protect biodiversity, with microplastics found everywhere from the mountainous Himalayas to staple foods and even human blood

LONDON: A group of 160 financial companies on Friday urged governments to agree a treaty to end plastic pollution that would help spur private sector action, ahead of the next round of global talks in Canada.
The fourth meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution (INC-4) is due to be held in Ottawa next week to lay the groundwork for an eventual deal before the end of the year.
Curtailing the estimated 400 million metric tonnes of waste produced every year is a crucial part of efforts to protect biodiversity, with microplastics found everywhere from the mountainous Himalayas to staple foods and even human blood.
To help fix the problem, the finance firms, which include Britain’s biggest investor Legal & General Investment Management and Canadian pension investor CDPQ, called for a policy framework backed up by binding rules.
Among specific steps, the group called for the treaty to set an objective for all public and private finance to be consistent with the goal of eliminating plastic pollution, similar to that in the Paris climate agreement and the Kunming-Montreal global biodiversity framework.
It also called for companies to assess and disclose plastic-related risks and opportunities; clearer plastic-related policies and targets from governments in areas like waste creating and recycling; and for further private investment to be directed to ending plastic pollution.
“A clear transition pathway laid out in the Treaty will help leverage finance at scale for this massive task of ending plastic pollution worldwide,” said Anne-Sophie Castelnau, global head of sustainability at ING, one of the signatories.
Steve Hardman, CEO of Plastic Collective, an NGO which designed the world’s first plastic waste reduction bond alongside Citi and the World Bank, welcomed the support but called for business to provide more financial solutions.
In January, the World Bank issued the $100 million bond to finance plastic-reduction projects in Ghana and Indonesia. Investors will be paid a rate linked to plastic removal credits generated by the projects.

 


Finnish PM: EU should help end migrant influx from Russia

Updated 19 April 2024
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Finnish PM: EU should help end migrant influx from Russia

  • European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visits the border to assess security situation

HELSINKI: The EU should take measures to help Finland stop an influx of migrants via Russia, Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo said.

Finland last year shut its long border with Russia amid a growing number of arrivals from countries including Syria and Somalia.
It accused Moscow of weaponizing migration against the Nordic nation and the EU, an assertion the Kremlin denies.
Finland’s government has closed eight of its nine checkpoints with Russia.
The only one that remains open is dedicated to rail travel and cargo trains mainly run through it.
“We are preparing our legislation, but we also need EU measures,” Orpo said, without elaborating, after visiting the Nordic country’s border with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
Von der Leyen told the same press conference that the EU Commission was working closely with the migrants’ countries of origin, agreeing with Finland’s position.
“What we see is that a state is instrumentalizing poor people to put pressure on another state, so that is a clear security issue,” she said.
She said that the measures taken to deal with migrants from Russia must balance protecting the security of borders and international obligations.
Following Poland and Lithuania’s example on their borders with Belarus, the Finnish government is drafting legislation allowing border guards to block asylum seekers entering the country from Russia.
“We all know how (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and his allies instrumentalize migrants to test our defenses and to try to destabilize us,” von der Leyen told officials.
“Now Putin is focusing on Finland, and this is no doubt in response to your firm support of Ukraine and your accession to NATO.”
Von der Leyen and Orpo flew in a Finnish helicopter over the landscape of forests and towns on the border.
Von der Leyen is campaigning as a conservative European People’s Party bloc member for a second term in office as head of the EU’s powerful executive branch.
Security is a top EPP theme before the June 6-9 European Parliament elections.
Most of the migrants hail from the Middle East and Africa.
Most of them have sought asylum in Finland, a member of the EU and NATO with a population of 5.6 million.
Finland joined NATO in April 2023, ending decades of neutrality after the country’s defeat by the Soviet Union in the Second World War.
In March, Sweden also became a member of the trans-Atlantic alliance.
The move dealt a major blow to Putin, with a historic realignment of Europe’s post-Cold War security landscape triggered by Moscow’s offensive against Ukraine.

 


US sanctions fundraisers for extremist West Bank settlers who commit violence against Palestinians

Updated 19 April 2024
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US sanctions fundraisers for extremist West Bank settlers who commit violence against Palestinians

  • Move comes as West Bank sees some of its worst violence perpetrated by settlers against Palestinians since Gaza war

WASHINGTON: The Biden administration on Friday imposed sanctions on two entities accused of fundraising for extremist Israel settlers already sanctioned, as well as the founder of an organization whose members regularly assault Palestinians.
The Treasury Department announcement comes as the West Bank has seen some of its worst violence perpetrated by extremist settlers against Palestinians since the war in nearby Gaza began.
There is also friction between President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose far-right government has reacted angrily to previous sanctions imposed against West Bank settlers.
Included in the Friday sanctions are two entities — Mount Hebron Fund and Shlom Asiraich — accused of raising funds for sanctioned settlers Yinon Levi and David Chai Chasdai.
Both men were previously sanctioned by the Biden administration for violently attacking Palestinians in the West Bank.
The penalties aim to block them from using the US financial system and bar American citizens from dealing with them.
The fundraising campaign established by Mount Hebron Fund for Levi and by Shlom Asiraich for Chasdai generated the equivalent of $140,000 and $31,000, respectively, according to US Treasury.
In Levi’s case, the fund now sanctioned by the Biden administration is linked to the regional council in the area, a body that receives state money. The Biden order Friday stopped short of sanctioning the council itself.
Rights groups say that the expansion of illegal settler outposts in the West Bank is enthusiastically supported by the regional councils and nudged along by Israel’s current national government — the most far-right in the country’s history.
The Biden order also skirted sanctioning crowdfunding websites where funds were raised, GiveChak and New York-based Charidy.
In Chasdai’s case, the fundraiser on Charidy was organized by Shlom Asiraich, which raises money for imprisoned Jewish extremists.
Both online fundraisers have now been taken down. But at least one fundraiser linked to a settler previously sanctioned by the Biden administration, Moshe Sharvit, remains online. As of Friday, the page on GiveChak had raised the equivalent of over $879,000.
Additionally, the State Department is designating Ben-Zion Gopstein, the founder and leader of Lehava, an organization whose members have assaulted Palestinian civilians.
Treasury Deputy Secretary Wally Adeyemo said the organizations “undermine the peace, security, and stability of the West Bank. We will continue to use our tools to hold those responsible accountable.”
In February, Biden issued an executive order that targets Israeli settlers in the West Bank who have been accused of attacking Palestinians and Israeli peace activists in the occupied territory.


Hindu-Muslim divisions sway voting in Indian district scarred by deadly riots

Updated 19 April 2024
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Hindu-Muslim divisions sway voting in Indian district scarred by deadly riots

  • Villages are largely self-segregated by religion in and around Muzaffarnagar in the most populous Uttar Pradesh state
  • Violent clashes broke out in 2013 after two Hindus stabbed Muslim youth to death, accusing him of harassing their sister

MUZAFFARNAGAR: Hindu-Muslim enmity made way for peace in an Indian district that saw deadly riots a decade ago but religious divisions still influence residents who voted on Friday in general elections in which Hindu nationalism is a key theme.

Villages are largely self-segregated by religion in and around Muzaffarnagar district, in the most populous northern state of Uttar Pradesh, but people say there is no longer tension between the majority Hindu and minority Muslim communities.

Violent clashes broke out here in 2013 after two Hindus stabbed a Muslim youth to death, accusing him of sexually harassing their sister. They were later beaten to death by a Muslim mob, which sparked riots that killed about 65 people, mostly Muslims, and displaced thousands.

Violence has not returned to the district known as the country's sugarcane-belt, but political divisions remain as Hindus typically vote for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Muslims for the opposition.

Modi's government has "controlled Muslims", said Ramesh Chand, a Hindu biscuit baker in Kairana city near Muzaffarnagar.

Critics accuse the nationalist BJP of targeting India's 200 million minority Muslims to please their hardline Hindu base - charges they deny.

Modi is widely expected to win a third term on the back of strong growth, welfare and his personal popularity despite some concern about unemployment, price rises and rural distress.

Chand said Modi had improved security in the region. "We can live in peace, whether or not we have jobs ... We can sleep with our doors open."

There were opposing views too.

In Jaula village, sugarcane farmer Mohammed Irfan, 50, said Modi's "high-handedness against Muslims" as well as unemployment and inflation were major reasons for him voting for the opposition Samajwadi Party.

Uttar Pradesh elects 80 lawmakers to the 543-member lower house of parliament, the most among all states, and a strong showing here is critical to the nationwide outcome.

Support for Modi was visible in Kutba Kutbi village, the epicentre of the 2013 riots.

Although there is "brotherhood" between the two communities now, nearly all Muslim families left the village after the riots, said Vinay Kumar Baliyan, 43, a farmer who said he supports Modi for promoting economic growth and raising India's stature globally.

But Irfan said Muslims are expected to vote in larger numbers this time as Eid celebrations this month brought many migrant workers and students home.


After Pakistan alert, WHO likely to issue wider warning on contaminated J&J cough syrup

Updated 19 April 2024
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After Pakistan alert, WHO likely to issue wider warning on contaminated J&J cough syrup

  • The UN health body said it puts out global medical product alerts to ‘encourage diligence’ by authorities
  • The WHO this week sent out alert on five batches of contaminated cough syrup ingredients found in Pakistan

LONDON: The World Health Organization is likely to issue a wider warning about contaminated Johnson and Johnson-made children’s cough syrup found in Nigeria last week, it said in an email.

Nigeria’s regulator recalled a batch of Benylin paediatric syrup last Wednesday, having found a high level of diethylene glycol in the product during routine testing.

The contaminant, alongside another closely related toxin, ethylene glycol, has been linked to the deaths of more than 300 children in Cameroon, Gambia, Indonesia and Uzbekistan since 2022, though there is no evidence that these incidents are linked with the latest recalls.

The UN health body said it puts out global medical product alerts to “encourage diligence” by national authorities and was likely to do so in this instance, “subject to confirmation of certain details from parties.”

The recalled batch of Benylin syrup was made by J&J in South Africa in May 2021, although Kenvue now owns the brand after a spin-off from J&J last year.

J&J has referred requests for comment to Kenvue. In an emailed statement on Friday, Kenvue said it had carried out tests on the batch recalled by Nigeria and had not detected either diethylene or ethylene glycol.

“We continue to work closely with health authorities and the WHO and are engaging with NAFDAC to understand their test results, including verifying the authenticity of the sampled product, the testing methodology used, and results reported by the agency,” the statement added.

Since Nigeria’s recall, five other African countries have also pulled the product from shelves — Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and South Africa, where the drug was made.

South Africa’s regulator has also recalled another batch of the syrup, which is used to treat coughs, hay fever and other allergic reactions in children.

Diethylene glycol is toxic to humans when consumed and can result in acute kidney failure, although there have been no reports of harm in the latest incident.

RAW MATERIALS

In the 2022 cases, the contamination in the syrups came from the raw materials used by manufacturers in India and Indonesia.

The WHO said it was collaborating with both the manufacturer and regulatory authority in South Africa to investigate the Benylin paediatric syrup, and had information on the source of the ingredients used. Kenvue has previously said it tested its ingredients before manufacture.

The agency said the possibility that the syrup was counterfeit was also “under consideration as part of investigations.”

Earlier this week the WHO sent out a separate alert on five batches of contaminated cough syrup ingredients found in Pakistan that appeared to have been falsely labelled as Dow Chemical products.

It was the first alert the WHO has sent on excipients — elements of a medicine other than the active pharmaceutical ingredient — rather than finished products, the agency confirmed on Friday.

The batches of propylene glycol were contaminated with ethylene glycol.

“It was critical for WHO to also alert manufacturers that may have been procuring this material to exercise more caution,” a WHO spokesperson said by email.

Propylene glycol is not an ingredient in Benylin paediatric syrup, a Kenvue spokesperson said on Friday.