Acting on a tip from the FBI, Facebook and Twitter have deleted several accounts belonging to a pseudo news outlet called Peace Data. The fake media organization is believed to be at the center of a Russian political influence campaign targeting voters in the US and the UK, among other things. Several freelance journalists have unknowingly been caught up in the operation.
Russian Influence Campaign Halted
On Tuesday, Facebook announced that they had stopped a Russian influence campaign in the early stages of its development. The campaign aimed at manipulating voters and a mostly left-winged audience in the United States, the United Kingdom, and in other countries. According to Facebook, Peace Data was pivotal in this operation. The so-called news outlet is said to have been set up by Russians as a pseudo-journalism platform.
The organization coordinated 13 Facebook accounts and two Facebook pages, which had been created earlier in the year. All these accounts were removed on Monday for violating Facebook’s policy against “foreign interference”, “coordinated inauthentic behavior” and “the use of false identities”. Twitter followed suit and suspended five accounts that were traced back to the same group. In the meantime, LinkedIn profiles of “Peace Data staff” have also been de-activated.
Individuals behind some of the accounts can be linked to the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA). This company, based in Saint-Petersburg, is described as “a farm of bots and trolls”. In 2016, IRA used every major social media platform available to spread disinformation during the US presidential election.
Building an Audience
Peace Data was in the early stages of building an audience, according to Facebook. The people behind the accounts used fake names and fake profile photos. Some of them most likely generated using artificial intelligence (AI). Next, they posed as news editors from different countries. The account holders then shared articles covering a range of political issues.
The current Peace Data website contains a vast number of news stories in English and Arabic. The posts have been published between February and August this year. Most articles focus on current events relevant to the countries they seem to target and are mostly targeted to left-winged readers. Topics included the Biden-Harris campaign, Trump’s policies, and social and racial justice in the US and the UK. But they also cover EU politics, the French influence in Africa, alleged Western war crimes and corruption, the tensions between Israel and Palestine, and environmental issues, amongst others.
To appear more authentic and remain undetected, Peace Data tricked and hired a number of real news editors and journalists to write articles for them. In a job posting on Upwork, Peace Data also described themselves as a “young international news organization focused on raising awareness about corruption, environmental crisis, abuse of power, armed conflicts, activism, and human rights”.
“Smears and Baseless Accusations”
After that, Peace Data’s “Editorial Team” has issued a statement in response to what they call “smears and baseless accusations”. The tone of voice says it all: “We’re shocked and appalled! We can proudly say that it’s an ugly lie. […] We’re convinced that corporate media and their puppet masters want to destroy our journalism and shut us up forever for speaking truth about them. Don’t believe a single word from them. They hate truth and want it to disappear.”
The website of Peace Data used to list over 20 contributors. However, the “About Us” page can no longer be found. Moreover, Social media analytics firm Graphika, who helped Facebook analyze the operation, has published a full report revealing the cluster of fake personas who identified themselves as Peace Data staff. There is no indication that the freelancers who wrote articles for Peace Data’s website were anything but sincere.
Meanwhile, Russian government officials have not responded to any of the accusations made. In the past, Moscow has always denied that it tries to influence elections. They also claim that they do not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.