Facebook said Wednesday it took down a network of Russian Instagram accounts that attempted to manipulate protest hashtags supporting Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, underscoring what critics say are Russia’s blatant attempts to misuse social media to tamp down growing support for the anti-Putin activist.
Facebook said 530 fake Instagram accounts engaged in a practice called “hashtag poisoning,” which involves using fake accounts to post large volumes of irrelevant or critical content to certain hashtags to drown out information or redirect the conversation.
The network spammed hashtags associated with pro-Navalny protests at the end of January with posts that were critical of the rallies and claims that large numbers of minors were in attendance, but they also made unrelated posts with memes about a Russian TikTok celebrity and ads for women’s clothes and handbags, according to Facebook’s February Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior report.
Facebook said the accounts appeared to be “created in bulk and purchased” and used celebrity profile photos and photos likely generated by AI.
The accounts were “automatically detected by our systems and then disabled as fake,” Facebook said.
Navalny, a prominent anti-corruption activist and critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was nearly killed by a Soviet-era nerve agent last year in a brazen assassination attempt. Navalny and the international community—including the U.S.—have blamed Russia for the poisoning, which the Kremlin denies. After recovering from the attack in Germany and returning to Russia, Navalny was immediately arrested on what human rights experts say are politically motivated charges. Navanly’s arrest and subsequent two-year prison sentence sparked widespread protests across Russia earlier this year, providing cover for the Russia-backed disinformation campaign on Facebook.
Nina Jankowicz, a fellow at the Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based non-partisan think tank, said Russia’s online efforts were a “Hail Mary in hopes that rudimentary means of online influence—bulk purchased fake accounts—can discourage protest action in support of Navalny.”
In addition to the Russian accounts, Facebook said it stopped attempts by military-linked entities in Myanmar to evade their bans on the social network.