Facebook said Thursday that the Bangladesh government appeared to be linked to imposter news sites posting pro-government, anti-opposition content ahead of a looming general election.
The social media giant said it had shut down nine pages and six accounts on its Bangladesh platform after discovering that they purported to be reputable news sites such as bdnews24 or the BBC Bengali service, among others.
“[T]hese pages were designed to look like independent news outlets and posted pro-government and anti-opposition content. Our investigation indicates that this activity is linked to individuals associated with the Bangladesh government,” said a statement by Head of Cybersecurity Policy Nathaniel Gleicher.
The pages and accounts were shut down for “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” which Facebook defines as groups of pages or people working together to mislead others about who they are or what they’re doing, Gleicher said.
Twitter announced similar action Thursday against 15 accounts linked to the Bangladesh government for “coordinated platform manipulation,” although it did not elaborate on what the manipulation entailed.
Bangladesh government officials were not immediately available for comment on the allegations.
More than 100 million Bangladeshi voters are eligible to vote in the upcoming Dec. 30 general election, the first contested election since 2008, in which Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is seeking an unprecedented fourth term in office. Hasina ran unopposed in 2014.
BenarNews reported in November that clones of leading news and information sites including Prothom Alo and BDFactCheck.com were being used to spread fake content. The sites typically contained several real news stories as well as the false ones along with a single extra character in the URL.
Bangladesh officials said at the time that they were moving to shut down such sites.
“I have come to know about it. I have also visited some fake websites. No doubt, this is a crime,” Information and Telecommunications Minister Mustafa Jabbar told BenarNews.
Sample posts shared by Facebook on Thursday showed a site called bdsnews24.com falsely reporting on Oct. 31 that opposition leader Khaleda Zia had fired the general secretary of her Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and a site called BBC-Bangla reported on Nov. 14 that BNP had split into “two clear factions,” including one that was promoting unrest.
The BBC-Bangla site includes what looks like a BBC news logo with the blue check mark Facebook uses to indicate a site is authentic.
“The BBC takes fake social media accounts very seriously. When we become aware of accounts which impersonate the BBC, we notify the relevant platforms requesting their removal where appropriate. We welcome actions being taken by social media platforms to protect trusted news sources,” a BBC spokesperson told BenarNews.
The accounts spent U.S. $800 on Facebook advertising between July 2017 and November 2018, Facebook said. Boosting posts with Facebook advertising increases the likelihood they are seen.
Also on Thursday, Twitter said it had suspended 15 accounts in Bangladesh for “coordinated platform manipulation.”
“Based on our initial analysis, it appears that some of these accounts may have ties to state-sponsored actors,” said a tweet by Twitter Safety, a division of the messaging company that says it educates users about digital citizenship and online safety.
An investigation into the manipulative behavior was ongoing, it said, without elaborating on the nature of the content. “However, at this point, we have taken action on a total of 15 accounts,” it said.