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Spammers and scammers using U.S. election to turn profit online, Facebook says

LONDON (Reuters) - Fraudsters from Albania to Vietnam are posting about U.S. politics and the upcoming presidential election to build fake audiences, maximise clicks and make money online, Facebook Inc said on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: A 3D-printed elections box and Facebook logo are placed on a keyboard in front of U.S. flag in this illustration taken October 6, 2020. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

In a new report about so-called “inauthentic behaviour” on its platform, Facebook said the Nov. 3 election had become a common lure to trick users into visiting online stores or websites laden with pay-per-view adverts.

“If you are a financially motivated actor who’s trying to make money based on clicks, you are going to use whatever content is going to get you eyeballs,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, told Reuters.

“And obviously, there’s a lot of attention being paid to what’s happening in the United States around the election.”

After weathering fierce criticism over efforts by political and commercial groups to manipulate its users, Facebook now regularly announces takedowns of online influence operations - such as three networks tied to Russia which it said last month could be used to disrupt the U.S. vote.

Gleicher said Wednesday’s report differed from previous takedown announcements because it dealt with less threatening activity, which was usually financially rather than politically motivated but often confused with foreign interference attempts.

In an interview ahead of the report’s release, he said he wanted to make a distinction between the two types of activity ahead of the U.S. vote and next month’s election in Myanmar, a country where the military and other groups have repeatedly been caught using social media to spread hate and disinformation.

“I want people to be aware of the full range of deception that is happening out there,” Gleicher said. “One of the ongoing challenges is people so often and so regularly mistake a financially motivated scheme to sell T-shirts as an influence operation coming from a foreign government.”

HOT-BUTTON ISSUES

There is frequently crossover between the two types of activity, both of which deliberately mislead users with fake accounts and post about “hot-button” issues to build an audience, Facebook said in its report.

But the networks suspended on Wednesday were primarily schemes to amplify content for financial gain, such as by using fake accounts to boost follower numbers or by repeatedly posting spam-like content about popular topics.

Facebook detailed four examples of networks it had suspended between May and September this year, which it said were operated by unconnected groups from countries including Botswana, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Macedonia and the Philippines.

One network operated from Albania and posted about U.S. politics to trick people into following pages that directed them to clickbait websites which generated money through adverts. A page in the network ran under the banner, “We need 1Million Trumpers to Make America Great Again.”

In Myanmar, Facebook said it had suspended 655 pages and 12 groups in August and September that posted about celebrity gossip and local news to attract clicks and views.

“A minority of posts from some of these networks and their ad-heavy websites focused on politics in Myanmar, including support for the military and references to ethnic tensions,” Facebook said. “We did not see evidence of these networks being politically motivated.”

Reporting by Jack Stubbs; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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