Facebook and Twitter announced yesterday (Dec. 20) that they had removed up to 30 accounts for spreading coordinated misinformation from Bangladesh, just 10 days ahead of the country’s national election.
The influence campaign, Facebook explained in a blog post, used pages that were “designed to look like independent news outlets and posted pro-government and anti-opposition content.” The post also explains that Facebook’s “investigation indicates that this activity is linked to individuals associated with the Bangladesh government,” though it does not explain how this conclusion was reached.
Some of the content shared by the influence campaign, Quartz found, is India-related. Most notably, one piece of inflammatory misinformation attempts to link a Bangladeshi opposition leader to a right-wing Hindu nationalist outfit in India.
The Bangladeshi press reported on the existence of this influence campaign over a month ago. A Nov. 17 article in the Dhaka Tribune newspaper discussed how “clones of several popular news websites”—including a counterfeit BBC website, which seems to have been linked to one of the pages that Facebook just removed—had been “disseminating outright false political news.”
Twitter, too, announced the removal of such accounts, saying it will publish information on them once the “still ongoing” investigations are completed.
Facebook, as it has often done in the past with other influence campaigns, shared the names of some of the accounts with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab (DFR Lab), a network of digital forensic researchers, a few hours before the takedowns. DFR Lab has written a detailed write-up, including screenshots, about some of the removed Facebook pages and the sites that they link to.
The pages had amassed up to 12,000 followers, with around $800 (Rs56,000) worth of ads running on them, until as late as this November, Facebook disclosed.
These numbers themselves are not particularly impressive.
The overall influence campaign was “small-scale and not very effective,” Ben Nimmo, senior fellow at the DFR Lab, told Quartz. The pages that DFR Lab looked at in depth did not have many followers, he said—and while some of their posts had high numbers of likes, “it’s not clear whether that was organic or bought.”
Web portals behind the pages
Though the Facebook pages have been taken down, some of the websites they led users to, which seem to have been an integral part of the operations, are still up.
A review of these websites shows they often posted articles about India, especially about the praise that Bangladesh or Bangladeshis have received from Indian leaders such as home minister Rajnath Singh, former president Pranab Mukherjee, and prime minister Narendra Modi. Many of the articles about India-Bangladesh relations seem to be based on actual news items, often coinciding with state visits, though they typically lack sources for quotes attributed to Indian leaders.
But at least one such India-related post clearly seems to be inflammatory misinformation. This article was uploaded in January to BDSNews24.com, a website with the same name as one of those pages that Facebook removed. This page, with around 6,500 likes, was a counterfeit of the news organisation BDNews24, which has a verified Facebook page with almost 9 million likes.
The fake-news story claims that a Bangladeshi opposition leader, Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), courted India’s Hindu-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) in her attempt to win an election.
Though the article claimed that an Indian newspaper had initially reported this story, the article does not contain any hyperlinks, and no corroborating sources are available online.
Such misinformation seems to be par for the course for the influence operation.
“Some articles on the website propagated misinformation, stating its information was obtained via ‘intelligence sources’ while providing no actual sourcing,” DFR Lab’s blog post explains, referring to (the fake) BDSNews24.com.
Another post from the counterfeit site BDSNews24 claimed that Bangladesh’s Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI), a far-right party, “was considered a militant organisation by the US Department of Homeland Security,” explains the DFR Lab post. “The article had no source, reports, nor hyperlinks.”
The influence campaign impersonated other news sources as well, including the BBC. One such Facebook page, now removed, had the British news organisation’s logo with a blue tick, in order to come across as a verified account. The site linked to this page, bbc-bangla.com, has now gone offline.
One such site that is still functional, newsdinraat24.com, also seems to have trafficked in misinformation. One of its posts from September 2018 claims Zia had bought herself a Canadian human-rights award. The evidence provided was an egregiously doctored image of a bank transfer slip: The Citibank logo is badly pixellated, the word chairman misspelt, and the “local currency” listed for a transfer from the UK to Canada is US dollars.
Domain lookup searches reveal that both the BDSNews24 and newsdinraat24 websites seem to use the services of Cloudflare, a US internet security company that had recently come under fire for allegedly protecting terrorist websites.
The use of privacy services like Cloudflare, Nimmo said, is something that “we’re seeing more and more. If somebody’s going through the effort of setting up a website, they’re normally going to go through the effort of setting up some kind of identity masking.”
Now it remains to be seen whether any influence campaigns will reemerge after these takedowns.
“It’s always easy to start a page. It’s harder to start a page if you’ve already been caught doing it before. But the hardest thing is to build your audience,” Nimmo said. “I’m sure, if they wanted to, they could change their IP address, change their phone number, and set up a new page. But then the first question is, what are they going to portray themselves as? Because if they’re going to masquerade themselves as the BBC again, they’re violating terms of service again and they’re going to get shut down again.”