Social media giant Facebook said Thursday that it has banned an Israeli company that ran an influence campaign aimed at disrupting elections in various countries and has canceled dozens of accounts engaged in spreading disinformation.
Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, told reporters that the tech giant had purged 65 Israeli accounts, 161 pages, dozens of groups and four Instagram accounts. Many were linked to the Archimedes Group, a Tel Aviv-based political consulting and lobbying firm that boasts of its social media skills and ability to “change reality.”
Gleicher said Facebook could not speculate about Archimedes’ motives, which “may be commercial or political.”
Archimedes was involved in “coordinated inauthentic behavior” targeting users in countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia, Gleicher said.
“The people behind this network used groups of fake accounts to run pages, disseminate content and to act to artificially increase engagement and make the content more popular than it was,” he added.
Those accounts and pages identified themselves as local, including making themselves look like local news organizations that published supposedly leaked information about local politicians. The pages and fake accounts would frequently post about political news, with topics like elections in the various countries, candidates’ views, and criticism of candidates.
“The individuals behind this network attempted to conceal their identities – and our internal team confirmed that they were linked to a company called the Archemides Group,” said Gleicher.
The countries targeted in Africa included Nigeria, Togo, Angola, Niger and Tunisia, he said.
In a blog post, Facebook provided examples of some of the posts and activity promoted by the network.
Gleicher said Archimedes had spent some $800,000 on fake ads and that its deceptive activity dated back to 2012. He said Facebook has banned Archimedes from the platform and is “blocking them from coming back.”
He added that Facebook has shared information about the activities of Archimedes with industry partners and policy makers.
Archimedes is “a real communications firm making money through the dissemination of fake news,” said Graham Brookie, director of the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council, a think tank collaborating with Facebook to expose and explain disinformation campaigns.
He called Archimedes’ commercialization of tactics that are more commonly tied to governments, like Russia, an emerging — and worrying — trend in the global spread of social media disinformation. “These efforts go well beyond what is acceptable in free and democratic societies,” Brookie said.
Facebook has come under pressure to more aggressively and transparently tackle misinformation aimed at sowing division and confusion around elections, since the revelation that Russia used Facebook to try to sway the 2016 US presidential election.
About 2.8 million accounts followed one or more of the fake pages, the Facebook blog said, and about 5,500 accounts joined at least one of the groups. Some 920 people followed one or more of the Instagram accounts in question.
“Our team assessed that because this group is primarily organized to conduct deceptive behavior, we are removing them from the platform and blocking them from coming back,” Gleicher added.
Although the activity appeared focused on Sub-Saharan African countries, it was also scattered in parts of Southeast Asia and Latin America, what Brookie called a “staggering diversity of regions” that pointed to the group’s sophistication.
The most significant audience engagement was generated in Malaysia, which has a vast media market and held a general election last year, according to Brookie and his team at the Atlantic Council.
Facebook shared a few examples of the fake content, including one post mocking 2018 Congolese presidential candidate Martin Fayulu for crying foul play in the elections that vaulted Felix Tshisekedi to victory. Many governments and watchdog groups condemned the elections as rigged and declared Fayulu the rightful winner.
Given the geographical variety of Archimedes’ operations, “it’s impossible to determine a single ideological thread,” said Brookie. “They weren’t pushing exclusively far-right or anti-globalist content. It appears to be a clear-cut case of spreading disinformation through economic incentive.”
He added that Archimedes-linked pages pulled from the playbook of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, with widely amplified yet tailored messages targeting potential voters and “creating a specter of leaked information.” Most impostor accounts shared a key tactic: posing as a campaigner for a particular candidate and then sharing opinions that actual supporters would find offensive.
On its website, Archimedes presents itself as a consulting firm involved in campaigns for presidential elections.
Little information is available beyond its slogan, which is “winning campaigns worldwide,” and a vague blurb about the group’s “mass social media management” software, which it said enabled the operation of an “unlimited” number of online accounts.
The site, featuring a montage of stock photos from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, boasts of its “own unique field within the social media realm” and its efforts to “take every advantage available in order to change reality according to our client’s wishes.”
A message seeking comment from the company was not immediately returned.
Archimedes’ chief executive is Elinadav Heymann, according to Swiss negotiations consultancy Negotiations.CH, where he is listed as one of the group’s consultants.
A biography posted to the company’s website describes him as the former director of the Brussels-based European Friends of Israel lobbying group, a former political adviser in Israel’s parliament and an ex-intelligence agent for the Israeli Air Force.
Messages left with Heymann through Negotions.CH were not immediately returned.