Facebook has removed more than 1,100 pages, groups and accounts from India and Pakistan because of “coordinated inauthentic behaviour or spam” on the social media platform.
Facebook announced on Monday it had taken down 687 pages and accounts linked to India’s main opposition Congress party, just days before voting begins in a general election, for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behaviour.
The media giant has faced increasing pressure from authorities around the world to ensure its platforms are not abused for political gains or to spread misinformation, especially ahead of elections.
Facebook said its investigation found that individuals used fake accounts and joined various groups to disseminate their content and increase engagement.
Their posts included local news and criticism of political opponents such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Facebook said.
“While the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our review found that it was connected to individuals associated with an INC (Indian National Congress) IT Cell,” Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy at Facebook, said in a statement.
Gleicher added that Facebook was removing accounts based on their behaviour, not the content they posted.
India’s staggered election, scheduled to begin on April 11, will end on May 19.
Two of the samples shared by Facebook were of posts that criticised Modi’s initiatives and called for supporting the Congress party and its president, Rahul Gandhi.
Also removed were 15 accounts linked to an Indian IT company which, among other things, issued posts on Modi’s ruling BJP and alleged misconduct of political opponents including Congress, Facebook said.
Separately, the social media giant said it had also removed another 227 pages and 94 accounts in India for violating its policies against spam and misrepresentation.
The Digital Forensic Research Lab at think-tank Atlantic Council, which partnered with Facebook for the review, said the accounts linked to Congress pushed satirical posts, while pro-BJP pages “carried vitriolic posts against opposition leaders”.
“The fact that partisans on both sides resorted to such tactics is a troubling feature,” it said in a blog post.
Another 103 pages and accounts originating from Pakistan that spread information about Pakistani politics and political leaders, the Indian government and the Pakistani military were also removed from Facebook and Instagram, a photo and video-sharing social networking service owned by Facebook, Inc.
The social media platform said the pages and accounts were directly linked to the Pakistani military’s press wing, the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR)
“The individuals behind this activity used fake accounts to operate military fan pages; general Pakistani interest pages; Kashmir community pages; and hobby and news pages,” the statement said.
The network included 24 pages, 57 Facebook accounts, seven groups and 15 Instagram accounts, all of which were followed by more than 2.8 million people, Facebook said.
“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found that it was linked to employees of the ISPR (Inter-Service Public Relations) of the Pakistani military,” said the statement.
Pakistan’s military did not offer any comment on the issue when contacted by Al Jazeera.
The online social media space has become an increasingly contested issue in Pakistan in recent years.
For the last two years, digital rights groups and journalists in Pakistan have been targeted in a crackdown against dissent – especially criticism of the country’s powerful military – that has included legal cases, treason charges, enforced disappearances and other attacks.
In January 2017, four social media activists who ran a Facebook page critical of the military were abducted for weeks before being released.
Two of those abducted told Al Jazeera that they had been taken by the military’s intelligence agencies, and that they were tortured and interrogated about their political views.
Journalists have also increasingly been targeted under wide-ranging powers accorded to the state under a cyber-crime law that allows authorities to remove any content deemed to be against “the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, public order, decency or morality”.
The military has in the past frequently referred to its belief that Pakistan is engaged in “fifth generation warfare”, a form of conflict that involves the dissemination of false or misleading information by enemy entities.