Wires

UPDATE 1-Facebook takes down account network posting artificial pictures, political content

Joseph Menn

political content@ (Adds analysis from outside researchers. Changes headline.)

SAN FRANCISCO, Dec 20 (Reuters) - Facebook Inc said on Friday it had taken down a major network that used fake accounts to promote lifestyle and political content, including articles promoting President Donald Trump and criticizing the Chinese government.

The network is among the first to make widespread use of artificially generated profile pictures and spent more than $9 million on advertising, according to Facebook and researchers from Graphika and the Digitial Forensics Research Lab.

The accounts "typically posted memes and other content about U.S. political news and issues including impeachment, conservative ideology, political candidates, elections, trade, family values and freedom of religion," Facebook said.

It said its investigation linked the activity to Epoch Media Group, a U.S.-based media organization, and individuals in Vietnam working on its behalf, though the accounts more openly associated with The BL, for the Beauty of Life. The BL had previously denied reported connections to the Epoch Media Group and its Epoch Times.

Neither Epoch Media nor The BL immediately responded to Reuters emails seeking comment.

The Epoch Times was set up as a print publication by followers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, banned in China, before moving heavily online.

More than 55 million accounts followed posts by the Facebook network's 89 Pages, 156 Groups and other assets, which included dozens of Instagram accounts.

Some of the pages and groups, including those with fictitious administrators, were explicitly dedicated to supporting Trump, while others interspersed politics with other topics. One identified by the outside researchers was called "Stand with President Trump 2020."

"Alongside pro-Trump material, these assets posted large quantities of material attacking his critics and rivals, often presenting users with a partisan statement and urging them to respond if they agreed," the researchers wrote in a report on the operation.

The BL's now-removed Facebook page said that it would "focus on content that represents fundamental moral standards and values, to enlighten all who prefer to be inspired," according to the researchers.

While the page said it rejected misinformation, Facebook said "The BL-focused network repeatedly violated a number of our policies, including our policies against coordinated inauthentic behavior, spam and misrepresentation."

The takedown followed investigative stories by NBC on the Epoch Times' heavy use of Facebook https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/tech-news/trump-qanon-impending-judgment-day-behind - f a c e b o o k - f u e l e d - r i s e - e p o c h - n 1 0 4 4 1 2 1 and by the fact-checking website Snopes.com on The BL. https://www.snopes.com/news/2019/10/11/pro-trump-outlet-linked-epoch-times/ ' (Reporting by Joseph Menn in San Francisco and Munsif Vengattil in Bengaluru; Editing by Shinjini Ganguli and Nick Macfie)