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It Took Facebook More Than A Year — And A Whistleblower — To Remove A Troll Farm Connected To Azerbaijan's Ruling Party

Weeks after firing an internal whistleblower who called for Facebook to crack down on a massive network of fake activity connected to Azerbaijan's ruling party, Facebook has removed more than 1,000 accounts and close to 8,000 pages.

Facebook linked the operation to the Youth Union of the governing New Azerbaijani Party. It said the accounts and pages were used to post comments that attacked opposition figures and independent media, and boost the country’s ruling party. This disclosure confirms what Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook data scientist, wrote in an explosive internal memo obtained by BuzzFeed News that said the company was ignoring manipulation of its platforms by political parties and heads of government.

On the day of her departure, she called the fake behavior in Azerbaijan her “greatest unfinished business,” and criticized Facebook for taking a year to investigate her findings. Last month, Facebook fired Zhang, and she posted the 6,600-word memo on an internal message board shortly before she left.

Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy, said on a press call Thursday that “Facebook identified this network after an internal investigation,” but did not cite Zhang by name.

BuzzFeed News was not able to ask a question on the call, but sent a follow-up email asking why it took the company a year to begin looking into the activity in Azerbaijan identified by Zhang. A spokesperson declined to comment on the record.

Guy Rosen, Facebook's VP of integrity, previously dismissed Zhang's work as only being about "fake likes."

"Like any team in the industry or government, we prioritize stopping the most urgent and harmful threats globally. Fake likes is not one of them," he said on Twitter.

Gleicher said the close to 8,000 pages used in the operation were set up to look like personal profiles and were used to leave comments.

“This network appeared to engage individuals in Azerbaijan to manage pages with the sole purpose of leaving supportive and critical commentary on pages of international and local media, public figures including opposition, and the ruling party of Azerbaijan, to create a perception of widespread criticism of some views and widespread support of others,” he said.

In her memo, Zhang said the country’s ruling party “utilized thousands of inauthentic assets... to harass the opposition en masse.”

The militaries of Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia are currently fighting over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, a dispute in which a reported 300 people have been killed.

In a separate announcement, Facebook said it removed 200 Facebook accounts, 55 pages, and 76 Instagram accounts that were part of an operation run by Rally Forge, a US marketing firm, on behalf of Turning Point USA and Inclusive Conservation Group. Turning Point USA is a prominent pro-Trump student group.

The accounts masqueraded as right-wing and, at times, left-wing Americans to comment on news articles and posts on the platform, according to Facebook.

Gleicher said that along with using fake accounts, the operation used accounts “whose names were slight variations of the names of the people behind them and whose sole activity on our platform was associated with this deceptive campaign.” He referred to these as “thinly veiled personas.”The operation spent close to $1 million on ads, according to Facebook. The takedown came after the Washington Post revealed the fake activity benefitting Turning Point USA. Facebook said it has banned Rally Forge from its platform.