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Facebook said its investigation linked activity on the Iran-based network to the state-owned Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Corporation.

Facebook has removed hundreds of social-media accounts -- more than half of them based in Russia, Iran, and Georgia -- after finding they belonged to networks that were running influence campaigns.

Facebook announced the move on May 5, saying it took them down in April as part of its ongoing efforts to purge its platforms of misleading information and fake accounts set up to disrupt elections and society in general.

The suspended accounts were active on both Facebook and Instagram, which Facebook owns, and were linked to eight networks, the California-based social-media giant said.

The networks based in Russia and Iran focused their content internationally, while two networks in the South Caucasus nation of Georgia, along with two in the United States and one each in Mauritania and Burma (also known as Myanmar), operated with domestic audiences in mind.

All the networks were created before the coronavirus pandemic, but the company said it found people behind the campaigns had "opportunistically" used coronavirus-related posts to build an audience and drive people to their content.

"We know that people looking to mislead others -- whether through phishing, scams, or influence operations -- try to leverage crises to advance their goals, and the coronavirus pandemic is no different," Facebook said in a statement.

Facebook said its investigation linked activity on the Iran-based network to the state-owned Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Corporation (IRIB). The activity originated in Iran and focused on a wide range of countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and a host of African nations.

The Russian network’s activity was linked to individuals in Russia, the Donbas region in Ukraine, and two media organizations in Russia-annexed Crimea -- NewsFront and SouthFront. It posted in multiple languages beyond Russian, including Hungarian, Serbian, Georgian, and Persian.

Facebook said the activity of one of the two Georgia networks was linked to Espersona, a media firm in Georgia that Facebook has now banned. The other was linked to people associated with the United National Movement, a political party.

The U.S.-based accounts were linked to QAnon, a far-right conspiracy theory circulated among supporters of President Donald Trump.

It was the first time Facebook has taken action against QAnon, which has crept into mainstream U.S. politics. It is centered on the baseless belief that Trump is fighting a secret battle against enemies entrenched in the U.S. government, known as the "deep state," who aim to overthrow him.

It has been helped along by Trump’s retweeting of QAnon-promoting accounts and followers attending his rallies.

In addition to the QAnon accounts, Facebook also removed accounts linked to VDARE, a U.S. website known for posting anti-immigration content.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP

Some Turkmen shared pictures online showing the damage caused by the storms.

Human rights groups say authorities in Turkmenistan's eastern region of Lebap have detained several local residents for filming damage to buildings and infrastructure inflicted by deadly wind and rain storms that hit the area last week.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a statement on May 4 cited the Prague-based Rights and Freedoms of Turkmen Citizens group as saying that it spoke with a woman in Lebap, who said security service held her for two days, together with 29 others, accusing them of sending videos “abroad.”

"The same group also received reports that security services held another 19 women for the same reason in [Turkmenabat], Lebap’s capital, releasing them May 3," HRW said.

Another rights group, The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, said police are watching for people in cars filming on their mobile phones the damage caused by the storms that hit the area on April 27.

"Turkmen authorities’ censorship and efforts to prevent information on the harms sustained from becoming public makes it difficult to accurately assess the damage and casualties," HRW statement said.

RFE/RL correspondents said they counted at least 30 people, including many children, killed by the storms in the Lebap region.

The Independent Turkmen News website quoted a medical official in Turkmenabat as saying that in the regional capital alone, the storms killed 300 people.

Videos that circulated on the Internet showed roofless buildings and private homes that had been destroyed inside.

Meanwhile, many residents of Lebap and the adjacent region, Mary, have said that the government has left them without assistance.

"Turkmenistan’s priorities should never include hunting down people filming news in their region, but particularly now in the wake of a disaster, the priority should be making effective and comprehensive efforts to bring aid to all who need it," HRW urged Turkmen authorities.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.


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