NEW DELHI — Facebook deleted hundreds of pages and accounts days before the start of India’s national elections, saying they were part of a coordinated effort to mislead its users.
The most popular page removed — the India Eye — had more than 2.5 million followers and provided a steady stream of content favoring the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
Facebook also removed 687 pages and accounts linked to individuals associated with India’s main opposition Congress Party.
About 900 million Indians are eligible to vote in the upcoming elections, which will unfold in phases starting April 11 and concluding May 19.
In the run-up to the polls, there has been increasing concern about the spread of false information through social media. India has about 300 million Facebook users — the highest number in the world — and the country is the largest market for Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging service.
After facing harsh criticism, Facebook strengthened its controls on political advertising and pledged to take steps to tackle “fake news” on its platform. It also introduced measures to curb the sharing of rumors via WhatsApp following a spate of mob violence in India last year.
The Indian elections are a “top priority” for the company, said Samidh Chakrabarti, Facebook’s director of product management for civic integrity, on a visit last week to New Delhi. He said it had created a special team dedicated to the Indian polls, a “rare and unusual” move.
Monday’s removal of pages and accounts was the largest ever by Facebook in India. The deletions were not carried out because of the content on the pages, but because the individuals involved used fake accounts to “mislead others about who they were” while operating in a coordinated manner, wrote Nathaniel Gleicher, the company’s head of cybersecurity policy, in a post.
Facebook said individuals associated with an information technology unit of the opposition Congress Party used fake accounts to spread politically driven content and increase engagement. The Congress Party responded on Twitter that none of its official pages or any pages run by verified volunteers were affected by Facebook’s move.
On the other side of India’s partisan divide, Facebook removed the India Eye, which offered praise for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and criticism of the Congress Party. The India Eye was also featured on Modi’s eponymous cellphone application, according to a recent report.
Facebook said that the individuals behind the page tried to hide their real identities but were associated with a firm called Silver Touch Technologies, which is based in the state of Gujarat. Indian media reports have previously linked Silver Touch to government contracts. Silver Touch executives did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The fact that “partisans on both sides resorted to such tactics is a troubling feature,” wrote Kanishk Karan and Ben Nimmo of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “It suggests that such inauthentic behavior may increasingly be considered a necessary part of political campaigning.”
Separately, Facebook also removed more than 100 pages, accounts and groups that it found were linked to employees of the public relations arm of Pakistan’s military who had tried to conceal their identities.
Niha Masih contributed to this report.