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Belarus KGB created fake accounts to criticize Poland during border crisis, Facebook parent company says

Migrants line up for food Dec. 1 at a checkpoint by the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus. (Oksana Manchuk/AP)
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MOSCOW — Meta, the parent company of Facebook, said it has linked Belarus’s main security service, the KGB, to fake accounts on its social media platforms that criticized Poland during the countries’ recent border standoff.

Tensions between Belarus and the European Union have spiked, with the 27-member bloc accusing the nation of orchestrating the flow of mostly Middle Eastern migrants to its border with Poland and Lithuania as revenge for sanctions.

More than 40 Facebook accounts, five groups and four Instagram accounts posed as journalists and activists from the E.U., particularly Poland and Lithuania, Meta said in an announcement Wednesday. The accounts posted criticism of Poland in English, Polish and Kurdish, including pictures and videos about Polish border guards allegedly violating migrants’ rights.

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The accounts had little reach: Meta said fewer than 1,400 people joined one or more of the groups, and fewer than 200 people followed one or more of the Instagram accounts. The accounts have since been removed.

“Although the people behind it attempted to conceal their identities and coordination, our investigation found links to the Belarusian KGB,” Meta said. It did not reveal its methodology for tying the accounts to Belarus.

Since Western intelligence agencies accused Russian hackers of using fake social media accounts to spread propaganda during the 2016 U.S. election, similar influence campaigns have become a common tool for other governments in the region.

Belarus’s and Russia’s security agencies are closely linked and often cooperate; the KGB name is a holdover from the Soviet Union, when the countries’ intelligence organs were under one umbrella.

Last month, researchers at the cybersecurity company Mandiant linked with “high confidence” activities of the Ghostwriter hacking group to the Belarusian government. The group “targeted a wide variety of governmental and private sector entities, with a focus in Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, and Germany,” the firm said.

Thousands of migrants wishing to enter the E.U. became stuck at the Belarus-Poland border last month, pushed by Belarusian guards to try to cross but then deported by Poland if they did. More than 1,000 Iraqis, mostly Kurds, have since left on repatriation flights. But many migrants remain at a warehouse in Belarus’s Grodno region near the border.

Belarusian state media has tried to portray the Polish border guards’ treatment of the migrants as “fascist” and violent.

An example of one allegedly fake account that Meta provided in its announcement followed that pattern. Writing in Polish, the poster said that “Poland distorts the events on the border more and more, unjustifiably accusing the Belarusian side, thus trying to divert attention from the illegal activities of Polish security forces in relation to refugees.”

Some migrants have said Belarusian forces beat them if they failed to cross. They also accused Polish guards of harsh treatment.

To make the accounts more convincing, some used profile photos likely to have been generated using artificial intelligence techniques, Meta said.

Meta said it also removed 31 Facebook accounts, four groups, two events and four Instagram accounts that it believes originated in Poland and targeted Belarus and Iraq. Those allegedly fake accounts posed as Middle Eastern migrants posting about the border crisis. Meta did not link the accounts to a specific group.

“These fake personas claimed to be sharing their own negative experiences of trying to get from Belarus to Poland and posted about migrants’ difficult lives in Europe,” Meta said. “They also posted about Poland’s strict anti-migrant policies and anti-migrant neo-Nazi activity in Poland. They also shared links to news articles criticizing the Belarusian government’s handling of the border crisis and off-platform videos alleging migrant abuse in Europe.”

One account that was removed “planned a protest event in Minsk that it advertised on Facebook. Local media publicly reported the planning of this event,” Meta said. People expressed interest in the event on Facebook, but it’s unclear if it occurred.

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