San Francisco (AFP)

With the approach of the US presidential election in November, Facebook and Twitter are stepping up efforts to protect their platforms from manipulation and disinformation campaigns, especially foreign ones, and avoid repeating the scandals of the 2016 polls.

Facebook announced on Wednesday that it had dismantled a network of some 120 accounts on its main platform and on its Instagram application, engaged in an operation to promote the re-election campaign of US President Donald Trump and maneuvered from Romania.

The social media giant has been communicating regularly for months on this type of intervention. In July, the two platforms removed more than 1,000 accounts identified as "non-genuine" by their behavior aimed at deceiving the public as to their intentions or origins.

These coordinated campaigns "manipulate public debate for strategic purposes," said Nathaniel Gleicher, the group's cybersecurity regulations director, at a press conference. "They blur the lines between healthy debates and manipulation".

The 2016 polls, including the presidential election in the United States and the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, were marked by interference campaigns mainly orchestrated from Russia.

Since scandals revealed the scale of these operations in 2018, social networks have deployed an arsenal of measures to fight fake accounts and disinformation.

- Labels -

Among other things, they focused on adding context.

Twitter made it known on Wednesday that it intends to alert users when news media accounts are financially and editorially controlled by a state.

"Unlike independent media, state-linked media frequently use their news coverage for political purposes," the social network said.

"We believe that people have a right to know when a media's account is directly or indirectly affiliated with a state actor," adds Twitter, which will include in this new rule the editors and important journalists of these media.

Facebook took similar action in early June, with "labels" for state-controlled media accounts, and banning them from posting ads. Twitter, for its part, has banned all political advertising.

False information on the coronavirus disseminated by Russian and Chinese media attracts more audiences on social networks in France and Germany than the content of certain major newspapers, according to a study published at the end of June by the Oxford Internet Institute.

It shows in particular that on Twitter and Facebook, the French and German-speaking articles shared by RT or Sputnik (media closely linked to the Russian state) have more echo than those of the daily Le Monde or the magazine Der Spiegel.

- Trolls -

The Romanian operation recently dismantled by Facebook used fake accounts masquerading as Americans, including fake pages of so-called supporters of the head of state.

This network posted content about the campaign, touting African-American support for the president, Christian beliefs and the conspiratorial “QAnon” movement.

In all, these pages were followed by less than 10,000 people.

"We have not found any proof of their motivations, financial or otherwise," Nathaniel Gleicher told a press conference. "Maybe they were just building an audience to monetize later."

Facebook also ousted a network of 500 accounts, groups and pages, present on its two platforms and associated with "Truth Media" ("truth media"), a brand now banned.

This disinformation network on China, Hong Kong, the United States or the coronavirus, piloted from many countries, was followed by 2 million people around the world, speaking Mandarin, English or Vietnamese.

Certain publications unveiled by Facebook reveal attempts to maintain tensions in society, in particular linked to the movements against racism in the United States.

The campaigns often use techniques called "trolls": "They use any content that divides to gain audience," detailed Nathaniel Gleicher.

"We are tackling a part of the problem that presents a challenge for all of society. It is increasingly clear that an organization cannot do it alone," said the senior official of the California company. .

His words echoed those of the group's boss, Mark Zuckerberg, who has repeatedly asked politicians to look into the limits to be set in terms of content and behavior that may or may not be tolerable on digital platforms.

© 2020 AFP