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Wednesday April 8th, 2020 6:31PM

Facebook removes fake Italian accounts ahead of EU election

By The Associated Press
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ROME (AP) — Facebook shut down phony Italian accounts and pages spreading fake news ahead of European Union parliamentary elections, prompting opposition lawmakers to call Monday for tougher laws to curb online misinformation.

"We have removed a number of fake and duplicate accounts that were violating our authenticity polices," the social network said Sunday. It also took down pages that were posting false information as well as some that had started as non-political pages and built up followers, only to then switch names to become political sites.

Facebook acted last week after being tipped off by the left-leaning campaign group Avaaz, which said in a statement that its investigation found 23 Italian Facebook pages spreading false information such as made up quotes and "divisive" anti-migration, anti-vaccine and anti-Semitic content.

"This is more proof that lies designed to sow hate and division in our societies are being spread deliberately on social media ahead of the EU elections," Avaaz campaign director Christoph Schott said.

Opposition senators in Italy including former Premier Matteo Renzi said they will soon submit to Parliament a proposed law to more adequately prevent and more efficiently combat fake news.

Avaaz said the pages had about 2.5 million followers, and more than a dozen of the pages supported the rightwing League Party or the populist 5-Star-Movement.

News of the shuttered pages "show the urgency of an intervention by Parliament," said a statement signed by nearly 40 Democratic senators.

But the leader of the far-right League Party, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, downplayed concerns about the account deletions.

"There is so much fake news even in official newspapers," said Salvini, who posts constantly on Facebook and said he would "guarantee that the elections are regular."

He added that Facebook "does its business and it does it well. What I care about is that the elections are crystal-clear, transparent, well organized."

His populist rival in the government, fellow Deputy Premier Luigi Di Maio, told journalists that there was no sign any pages managed by his 5-Star-Movement had been shut.

Facebook is stepping up efforts to combat fake news and hate speech around EU elections scheduled for May 23-26, in which voters in the bloc's 28 nations will be able to cast ballots for hundreds of candidates.

The company has come under increasing pressure since 2016, when Russia's use of social media to meddle with the U.S. presidential elections came into focus. CEO Mark Zuckerberg initially downplayed Facebook's role in Russia's influence operation, but the company later apologized.

The Silicon Valley company has set up an EU election operations center in Dublin staffed with engineers, data scientists and researchers to monitor for abuse related to the vote.

Experts say other groups are copying from Russia's disinformation playbook.

"One thing to look out for in Europe will be domestic actors doing what the Russians had already been doing," said Ben Nimmo, a researcher at the Atlantic Council. "Everyone's seen what the Russians did. It's not going to be any stretch of imagination to say, 'If the Russians did it, why can't I?"

___

Chan reported from London.

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