Facebook removes network of fake accounts promoting military-backed telecom with $1.2m misinformation campaign

Facebook said on Wednesday it had removed 13 user accounts and 10 pages for targeting Myanmar users with “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” aimed at promoting the telecom company MyTel.

About 265,600 users followed one or more of the pages and accounts, according to the company.

“In each of these cases, the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves,” Facebook’s head of security policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, wrote in a statement.

“Each of them created networks of accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing.”

Myanmar Now was unable to reach Zaw Min Oo, chief of external relations at MyTel, on Thursday.

Many of the creators, based in Myanmar and Vietnam, posed as sources of independent news and commentary on the telecom industry but were actually linked to Burmese telecom provider Mytel, Vietnamese provider Viettel and Vietnamese PR firm Gapit Communications, according to Facebook.

Others shared general ‘lifehacks’ or patriotic content, according to The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which analysed several of the pages before Facebook removed them.

These pages had innocuous names like Myanmar Life, Myanmar Knowledge and Smart Life for Myanmar, but all “gradually… shifted to content promoting the MyTel brand,” Jean le Roux, a research associate at the lab, wrote in a blog post.

(Photo : Facebook, Inc)

Le Roux said the two largest pages – Myanmar Internet & Telecom News and Myanmar Telecom Promotions – also shared content that was neutral or that even promoted MyTel competitors “in a possible effort to cast doubt on the pages’ objective.”

Facebook said the creators had spent around $1.2m on Facebook ads, paid for in US dollars and Vietnamese dong.

In one post shared simultaneously by several of the pages on 19 October 2020, a promotion using the branding of MyTel’s rivals – Telenor, Ooredoo and MPT – promised 10 gigabytes if users dialed *31# on their phone. But after dialing the codes, many users complained online of not being able to make calls on Burmese networks from their phones anymore.

“Conveniently, MyTel’s official Facebook page posted a solution to this problem a day before,” le Roux said.

MyTel is operated as a joint venture between the Myanmar military, Viettel – which is owned by Vietnam’s defence ministry – and MNTH, a conglomerate of Myanmar companies.

Last August a UN fact-finding mission included it in a list of companies it urged the international community not to do business with, in response to a 2017 military operation that forced more than 730,000 of the country’s Rohingya minority into refugee camps in Bangladesh.

(Photo : Facebook, Inc)

The military is currently being tried for genocide and crimes against humanity at the International Court of Justice for the operation, which it claims was a legitimate response to terrorist attacks.

In 2018 Facebook removed hundreds of users in Myanmar, including military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, “to prevent them from using our service to further inflame ethnic and religious tensions” in the country.

Last August the social media giant shut down more than 200 accounts, pages and groups – plus five accounts on Instagram, which it owns – for trying to “manipulate or corrupt public debate”.

In the latest, Myanmar and Vietnam were among four countries where Facebook found such fake accounts. The others were in Russia and Iran.

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