Facebook has removed a total of 265 accounts, pages, groups and events involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior which aimed to influence elections in Nigeria and other countries.
Facebook's head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, announced at a press conference on Thursday, May 16, 2019 that the activity originated in Israel and focused on Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, Angola, Niger and Tunisia along with some activity in Latin America and Southeast Asia.
The social media giant disclosed that some of the suspected activity was linked to Archimedes Group, a Tel Aviv-based political consulting and lobbying firm.
Gleicher noted that the network used accounts to run pages, disseminate their content and artificially increase engagement.
"They also represented themselves as locals, including local news organizations, and published allegedly leaked information about politicians.
"The Page administrators and account owners frequently posted about political news, including topics like elections in various countries, candidate views and criticism of political opponents," Gleicher said.
Facebook further accused Archimedes of repeatedly violating its misrepresentation policy as well as other policies such as engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior.
"This organisation and all its subsidiaries are now banned from Facebook, and it has been issued a cease and desist letter," Gleicher announced.
65 Facebook accounts, 161 Pages, 23 Groups, 12 events and four Instagram accounts were removed and blocked from the social media platform. About 2.8 million accounts followed one or more of the affected Pages, while about 5,500 accounts joined at least one of the Groups, and around 920 people followed one or more of the Instagram accounts.
Gleicher also revealed that around $812,000 was spent by the group for ads on Facebook paid for in Brazilian reals, Israeli shekel, and US dollars. The first ad ran in December 2012 and the most recent ad ran in April 2019.
"We're constantly working to detect and stop this type of activity because we don't want our services to be used to manipulate people. We're taking down these Pages and accounts based on their behavior, not the content they posted.
"As in other cases involving coordinated inauthentic behavior, the individuals behind this activity coordinated with one another to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing, and that was the basis for our action," Gleicher explained.
Even though Facebook could not authoritatively determine Archimedes' motives, Gleicher told journalists that it may be commercial or political or for some other strategic goal.
On its About page, Archimedes revealed that it has taken significant roles in many political and public campaigns, among them Presidential elections and other social media projects all over the world.
"Archimedes consists of experts from a wide spectrum of fields, consulting, lobbying, public diplomacy, International public relations, information, and social media," the group wrote.
Its slogan reads "Winning campaigns worldwide" on its official website. At the time of filing this report, the organisation is yet to respond to inquiries about which campaigns it ran in Nigeria which recently organised general elections.
Facebook has, in recent times, been criticised for being pivotal to the spread of fake news and foreign interference with its lax policies that allows politicians buy ads that can widen the audience for them to push their, sometimes, sinister agendas.
The spread of fake news and foreign interference in elections caused a global outrage especially with the electoral triumph of Donald Trump as United States president in 2016.
In January, ahead of Nigeria's 2019 elections which took place on February 23 and March 9, Facebook announced an extension of some of its political advertising rules and tools to curb the spread of fake news and foreign interference in the country.
"We'll temporarily expand enforcement and not accept foreign electoral ads around their elections, starting with Nigeria on January 16," an official statement read.
A repeat of Cambridge Analytica scandal
This is not Nigeria's first involvement with a foreign interference incident around its elections as it emerged last year that an unnamed Nigerian billionaire paid £2 million to Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm, to influence the 2015 presidential election in favour of then-president, Goodluck Jonathan.
Cambridge Analytica employees were flown to Nigeria and Israeli hackers were hired to break into then-opponent Muhammadu Buhari's emails to exhume his financial and medical records.
The Cambridge Analytica team was lodged in a hotel in Abuja a few weeks to the presidential election and worked on a communications campaign for Jonathan who is reported to have been unaware of the plot.
The Israeli intelligence operatives who worked with Cambridge Analytica during this period claimed that France and Israel wanted Jonathan to win the presidential election.
Cambridge Analytica hacked Facebook to harvest the profile of millions of users and target what was determined to be their worst fears.
In a video the firm produced, people were filmed being dismembered, having their throats cut and bled to death, and also burned to death in a bid to portray Muslims as violent and Buhari as the man that would impose Sharia Law that'll make that sort of violence commonplace in the country.
"It was voter suppression of the most crude and basic kind. It was targeted at Buhari voters in Buhari regions to basically scare the shit out of them and stop them from voting," a former Cambridge Analytica employee who worked on the campaign said.
Buhari, 76, won the 2015 election and also won re-election in this year's February 23 presidential election despite the fierce opposition mounted by former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, on the platform of Jonathan's Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
Atiku has filed a petition before the Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal to contest the result, and hearings commenced this week.