Saturday November 17, 2018
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82 Iran-Linked Facebook Accounts Deleted

The analysts said many of the posts also contained errors that gave away their non-U.S. origins.

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An Iranian man surfs the Internet at a cafe in Tehran, Iran, Sept, 17, 2013. Facebook says it has removed 82 Iran-linked accounts for spreading misinformation. VOA
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Facebook announced Friday that it has removed 82 accounts, pages or groups from its site and Instagram that originated in Iran, with some of the account owners posing as residents of the United States or Britain and tweeting about liberal politics.

At least one of the Facebook pages had more than one million followers, the firm said. The company said it did not know if the coordinated behavior was tied to the Iranian government. Less than $100 in advertising on Facebook and Instagram was spent to amplify the posts, the firm said.

The company said in a post titled “Taking Down Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior from Iran” that some of the accounts and pages were tied to ones taken down in August.

“Today we removed multiple pages, groups and accounts that originated in Iran for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior on Facebook and Instagram,” the firm said. “This is when people or organizations create networks of accounts to mislead others about who they are, or what they’re doing.”

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Iranians surf the internet at a cafe in Tehran, Iran, Sept, 17, 2013. In Iran, a government push for a ‘halal’ internet means more control after protests.. VOA

Monitoring online activity

Facebook says it has ramped up its monitoring of the authenticity of accounts in the runup to the U.S. midterm election, with more than 20,000 people working on safety and security. The social media firm says it has created an election “war room” on the campus to monitor behavior it deems “inauthentic.”

Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy for Facebook, said that the behavior was coordinated and originated in Iran.

The posts appeared as if they were being made by citizens in the United States and in a few cases, in Britain. The posts were of “politically charged topics such as race relations, opposition to the president, and immigration.”

In terms of the reach of the posts, “about 1.02 million accounts followed at least one of these Pages, about 25,000 accounts joined at least one of these groups, and more than 28,000 accounts followed at least one of these Instagram accounts.”

A more advanced approach

The company released some images related to the accounts.

An analysis of 10 Facebook pages and 14 Instagram accounts by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab concluded the pages and accounts were newer, and more advanced, than another batch of Iranian-linked pages and accounts that were removed in August.

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A protester wearing a mask with the face of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is flanked by two fellow activists wearing angry face emoji masks, during a protest against Facebook policies, in London, Britain (From archives) VOA

“These assets were designed to engage in, rather than around, the political dialogue,” the lab’s Ben Nimmo and Graham Brookie wrote. “Their behavior showed how much they had adapted from earlier operations, focusing more on social media than third party websites.”

And those behind the accounts appeared to have learned a lesson from Russia’s ongoing influence campaign.

“One main aim of the Iranian group of accounts was to inflame America’s partisan divides,” the analysis said. “The tone of the comments added to the posts suggests that this had some success.”

Targeting U.S. midterm voters

Some of the accounts and pages directly targeted the upcoming U.S. elections, showing individuals talking about how they voted or calling on others to vote.

Most were aimed at a liberal audience.

“Proud to say that my first ever vote was for @BetoORourke,” said one post from an account called “No racism no war,” which had 412,000 likes and about half a million followers.

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Michael Steele, then-Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman, announces that he is dropping his re-election bid, Jan. 14, 2011, during the Republican National Committee Winter Meeting in Oxon Hill, Md. VOA

“Get your ass out and VOTE!!! Do your part,” said another post shared by the same account.

U.S. intelligence and national security officials have repeatedly warned of efforts by countries like Iran and China, in addition to Russia, to influence and interfere with U.S. elections next month and in 2020.

Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, who is a ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said Facebook’s decision to pull down the questionable pages and accounts and share the information with the public is critical to “keeping users aware of and inoculated against such foreign influence campaigns.”

“Facebook’s discovery and exposure of additional nefarious Iranian activity on its platforms so close to the midterms is an important reminder that both the public and private sector have a shared responsibility to remain vigilant as foreign entities continue their attempts to influence our political dialogue online,” Schiff said in a statement.

But not all the Iranian material was focused on the U.S. midterm election.

Also Read: Here’s How Facebook Identifies ‘Inauthentic Behaviour’

“These accounts masqueraded primarily as American liberals, posting only small amounts of anti-Saudi and anti-Israeli content,” the Digital Forensic Research Lab said.

A number of posts also took aim at U.S. policy in the Middle East in general. One post by @sut_racism, accused Ivanka Trump of having “the blood of Dead Children on Her Hands.”

Still, the analysts said many of the posts also contained errors that gave away their non-U.S. origins. For example, in one post talking about the deaths of U.S. soldiers in World War II, the account’s authors used a photo of Soviet soldiers. (VOA)

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Rohingyas Repatriation to Myanmar Scrapped by Bangladesh

Negotiations for repatriation have been in the works for months.

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Rohingya, myanmar
An elderly Rohingya refugee holds a placard during a protest against the repatriation process at Unchiprang refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, in Bangladesh.VOA

Bangladesh’s plans to begin repatriating Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar Thursday were scrapped because officials were unable to find anyone who wanted to return to the country that has been accused of driving out hundreds of thousands in a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

The refugees “are not willing to go back now,” Refugee Commissioner Abul Kalam told The Associated Press. He said officials “can’t force them to go” but will continue to try to “motivate them so it happens.”

Some people on the government’s repatriation list disappeared into the sprawling refugee camps to avoid being sent home, while others joined a large demonstration against the plan.

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Workers build a Rohingya repatriation center in Gunndum near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. VOA

UN urged a halt to repatriation

More than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh from western Myanmar’s Rakhine state since August 2017 to escape killings and destruction of their villages by the military and Buddhist vigilantes that have drawn widespread condemnation of Myanmar.

The United Nations, whose human rights officials had urged Bangladesh to halt the repatriation process even as its refugee agency workers helped to facilitate it, welcomed Thursday’s development.

Firas Al-Khateeb, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Cox’s Bazar, said it was unclear when the process might begin again.

“We want their repatriation, but it has to be voluntary, safe and smooth,” he said.

Bangladesh officials declined to say whether another attempt at repatriation would be made Friday.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali told reporters in Dhaka late Thursday that “there is no question of forcible repatriation. We gave them shelter, so why should we send them back forcibly?”

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Rohingya refugee children shout slogans during a protest against the repatriation process at Unchiprang refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh. VOA

Pleading with Rohingya

At the Unchiprang refugee camp, a Bangladeshi refugee official implored the Rohingya on Thursday to return to their country over a loudspeaker.

“We have arranged everything for you, we have six buses here, we have trucks, we have food. We want to offer everything to you. If you agree to go, we’ll take you to the border, to the transit camp,” he said.

“We won’t go!” hundreds of voices, including children’s, chanted in reply.

Some refugees on the repatriation lists, which authorities say were drawn up with assistance from the UNHCR, said they don’t want to go back.

‘I don’t want to go back’

At the Jamtoli refugee camp, one of the sprawling refugee settlements near the city of Cox’s Bazar, 25-year-old Setara said she and her two children, age 4 and 7, were on a repatriation list, but her parents were not. She said she had never asked to return to Myanmar, and that she had sent her children to a school run by aid workers Thursday morning as usual.

“They killed my husband; now I live here with my parents,” said Setara, who only gave one name. “I don’t want to go back.”

She said that other refugees on the repatriation list had fled to other camps, hoping to disappear amid the crowded lanes of refugees, aid workers and Bangladeshi soldiers, which on Thursday were bustling with commerce and other activity.

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Rohingya refugees shout slogans during a protest against the repatriation process at Unchiprang refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh. VOA

Plan to return 150 a day

Bangladesh had planned to send an initial group of 2,251 back from mid-November at a rate of 150 per day.

Myanmar officials, speaking late Thursday in the capital, Naypyitaw, said they were ready to receive the refugees. Despite those assurances, human rights activists said conditions were not yet safe for the Rohingya to go back.

The exodus began after Myanmar security forces launched a brutal crackdown following attacks by an insurgent group on guard posts. The scale, organization and ferocity of the crackdown led the U.N. and several governments to accuse Myanmar of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Most people in Buddhist-majority Myanmar do not accept that the Rohingya Muslims are a native ethnic group, viewing them as “Bengalis” who entered illegally from Bangladesh, even though generations of Rohingya have lived in Myanmar. Nearly all have been denied citizenship since 1982, as well as access to education and hospitals.

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Rohingya refugees cross floodwaters at Thangkhali refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district. VOA

Refugee camps bleak

The refugees survived the ransacking of villages, rapes and killings in Myanmar, but for many, life in Bangladesh’s squalid refugee camps has been bleak.

The refugees who’ve arrived in the last year joined a wave of 250,000 Rohingya Muslims who escaped forced labor, religious persecution and violent attacks from Buddhist mobs in Myanmar during the early 1990s.

Access to education and employment has been far from assured.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who hopes to retain power in December elections, has repeatedly complained that hosting more than a million Rohingya is taxing local resources.

Negotiations for repatriation have been in the works for months, but plans last January to begin sending refugees back were called off amid concerns among aid workers and Rohingya that their return would be met with violence.

Foreign leaders, including U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, criticized Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi this week on the sidelines of a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Singapore for her handling of the Rohingya crisis.

Also Read: Rohingya Muslims Remain Fearful Due To Forceful Repatriation

But on Thursday, Pence said that U.S. officials were “encouraged to hear that” the repatriation process would begin.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country would continue working with international partners including the U.N. “to ensure that the Rohingya themselves are part of any decisions on their future.” (VOA)