Facebook takes down hundreds of fake Instagram accounts in Russia

The accounts used ‘hashtag poisoning’ to try to interfere with protests.

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Facebook has taken down hundreds of fake Instagram accounts in Russia that were trying to interfere with protests in the country. The company says it found a network of 530 accounts that “targeted domestic audiences throughout the recent protests in support of Alexey Navalny,” the recently imprisoned Russian opposition leader.

Facebook says the people behind the network likely purchased the accounts in an attempt to bypass the social network’s automated detection systems. The accounts in question used tactics Facebook described as “hashtag poisoning” and “location poisoning,” meaning they essentially spammed the hashtags and location tags that were being used by protest organizers.

Together, the Instagram accounts gained about 55,000 followers and often posted under hashtags like #PutinLeave and #FreeNavalny. “This network posted memes in Russian including about a Russian TikTok celebrity, criticism of pro-Navalny protests, claims of large numbers of minors attending the rallies and also advertising of women’s clothes and handbags,” Facebook writes in its report.

During a call with reporters, Facebook’s head of security policy Nathaniel Gleicher pointed out that simply engaging in hashtag poisoning is not against Facebook’s rules and that it’s a tactic often used by activists and can be "an important part of debate." But that using fake accounts to do so breaks the company’s rules against platform manipulation.

Facebook detailed the network in its latest report on coordinated inauthentic behavior on its platform. In addition to the Instagram accounts, the company also found networks of fake accounts linked to Thailand, Morocco and Iran.