Facebook accuses telecoms groups of disinformation tactics
Facebook has alleged that one of south-east Asia’s biggest telecoms providers used tactics typical of Russian trolls to discredit rivals, in one of the first takedowns of so-called commercial disinformation from its platform.
The world’s largest social media platform said on Wednesday that it had banned a network of two dozen fake pages and accounts linked to two telecoms providers — Vietnam’s Viettel and Myanmar’s Mytel — marking the first time Facebook has taken action against businesses for directly using disinformation against competitors.
According to Facebook, those behind the pages created what appeared to be an “independent telecoms news hub”, posing as customers critical of the companies’ telecoms rivals, and spreading fake news of alleged business failures, market exits and fraudulent activity at those rivals.
Viettel, Vietnam’s biggest telecoms provider, is state-owned and run by the country’s Ministry of Defence. It is present in 11 countries, including Myanmar, where it owns 49 per cent of operator Mytel. Viettel in January announced plans to develop commercial 5G services.
Since the 2016 US election, Facebook has removed dozens of political disinformation campaigns that sought to sway public opinion, linking many to state-backed actors in Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
It has also previously barred several financially motivated disinformation campaigns. In some cases groups hired third parties such as marketing companies to promote their interests, in what has been dubbed “disinformation-as-a-service”. These have mostly focused on manipulating political discourse.
But Wednesday’s takedown marks the first time a corporation has been accused of handling its own disinformation campaign to target rivals.
An independent analysis by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab found that some of the pages “started out on a very patriotic and nationalist tone” before shifting to “content promoting the Mytel brand”. Others were directly critical of Mytel rivals Ooredoo MPT and Telenor.
Facebook also linked Gapit Communications, a Vietnam-based press relations company, to the campaign. The pages, followed by 265,600 accounts, were tied to about $1.2m worth of Facebook advertising, the Silicon Valley internet group added.
“Viettel Group does not, in any manner, condone any unethical or unlawful business practice,” said Viettel in response. “We are actively verifying Facebook’s information. Any employee or member of the group, if proven to be involved in such practice, will have to take full responsibility.”
Gapit declined to comment, and said it would be in touch with Facebook on the matter the US company had raised.
Facebook warned that so-called commercial disinformation campaigns could become more prevalent.
“We would expect other types of actors such as corporate actors to see these types of [political] disinformation campaigns and follow that model,” Nathaniel Gleicher, head of Facebook’s cyber security policy, told the Financial Times, adding that the company was actively looking for commercial disinformation campaigns.
Daniel Avital, chief strategy officer at cyber security group CHEQ, said: “Because of the democratisation of all these [disinformation] tools, it’s easier to create bots to do your bidding, it’s easier to create deepfakes. We anticipate more [activity] in the corporate world.”
The impact of such campaigns, if they succeeded, could be “extremely painful, knock billions off share prices and cost CEOs their jobs”, warned Sharb Farjami, global chief executive officer of Storyful, a social media intelligence agency.