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Fake accounts linked to Catalan separatists among thousands removed by Twitter

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Fake accounts linked to Catalan separatists among thousands removed by Twitter
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Twitter has announced that it has removed thousands of accounts in its latest purge of bad actors on the site and released information relating to state-backed content.

A Catalonian pro-independence party, Iran's government and a commercial entity in Venezuela have all been connected to "coordinated manipulation" on Twitter that breaks the social platform's rules.

Russia's notorious Internet Research Agency (IRA) also gets a mention, albeit briefly, which Twitter attributes to "increased information sharing between industry peers and law enforcement".

Thursday's report follows on from Twitter's mass release in October of content associated with "potential information operations" since 2016.

The IRA featured heavily in the October report, with Twitter releasing details of 3,841 accounts traced back to the Kremlin-linked troll farm.

But the most recent report ties the IRA to just four accounts, which have since been removed from the platform.

Euronews has read through the rest of Twitter's recent report and has broken it down for you below.

Iran

Previous reports from cybersecurity company FireEye and Twitter have revealed Iranian-linked accounts taking part in inauthentic behaviour, but both companies distanced themselves from blaming the state.

In Thursday's report, however, Twitter said it had identified 4,779 accounts that were all "associated with — or directly backed by — the Iranian government".

Twitter then broke the activity down into three subsets — 1,666 accounts tweeted news content promoting Iran's diplomatic and geostrategic views, 248 accounts directly engaged in conversation on Israel, and a further 2,865 accounts took on fake personas and tweeted about politics and social issues in Iran and around the world.

The latter example was the subject of a thread posted last month by Yoel Roth, Twitter's head of site integrity, who said the accounts had replied to users, including politicians and journalists.

He added: "Several of the accounts falsely represented themselves as media based in the United States and claimed affiliation without outlets like the New York Daily News, Newsday and the Seattle Times."

Spain

Twitter says it has removed 130 suspected fake accounts "directly associated" to the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), a prominent party in the Catalan independence movement. One of these accounts alone had more than 13,000 followers.

The pro-independence ERC won a record number of 15 seats in Spain's parliament following elections in April, which marked the first time since the 1930s that it garnered the most support out of all Catalan parties.

Its leader, Oriol Junqueras, is the former vice-president of Catalonia, and has been in jail since 2017 over the region's failed declaration of independence.

His trial in Madrid ended this week after four months — he could face a 25-year jail sentence if convicted.

The 50-year-old was also elected to European Parliament in last month's election.

Oriol Junqueras in parliament last month

According to Twitter's report, the ERC-linked accounts were found to be fake profiles spreading content about the banned 2017 Catalan referendum.

They had been "created with the intent to inorganically influence the conversation in politically advantageous ways," the report said.

This is not the first instance of influencing campaigns uncovered in Catalonia.

Spain's El Pais newspaper released an investigation in 2017 that said the IRA had "used the Catalan crisis as a way to deepen divisions within Europe".

The ERC has not yet responded to Euronews' request for comment on the report from Twitter.

Venezuela

In January, Twitter said it had removed 1,196 accounts it believed was part of a government-backed campaign targeting Venezuelan audiences, and a further 764 accounts it believed were linked to the IRA.

But in Thursday's report, the social network said it had uncovered a further 33 accounts (on top of the 764 from January), in a campaign that it now believed originated from inside Venezuela itself.

It said: "While there were initial indications that these accounts were associated with the Russian Internet Research Agency, our further analysis suggests that they were operated by a commercial entity originating in Venezuela."

"We are sharing further data on this group to update the public on our attribution efforts."

What is Twitter's response?

The social platform said it believes such activity from government-linked actors, who are "knowingly trying to manipulate and distort the public conversation", is in the public interest, and should, therefore, be published.

"People and organisations with the advantages of institutional power and which consciously abuse our service are not advancing healthy discourse but are actively working to undermine it," the company added.

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