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Facebook Axes Moscow Mayor's Office Webpage Amid 'Troll' Purge


It appears the Moscow mayor's office may have been swept up in Facebook's purge this week of accounts linked to a notorious Russian "troll factory" accused of meddling in U.S. politics.

The Facebook page of Moscow City Hall's economic-policy department was removed without explanation on April 4, a spokeswoman for the department told RFE/RL by telephone on April 5.

She said officials at City Hall requested clarification from Facebook about the removal one day after Facebook announced that it had deleted scores of accounts that it linked to the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA).

The IRA, known informally as the "troll factory," was among three firms and 13 individuals indicted in the United States in February on charges of meddling in U.S. politics, including the 2016 election that vaulted President Donald Trump into the White House.

The charges were announced by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Facebook did not comment specifically on the Moscow City Hall page in question. But a spokesman for the company, Jan Sciegienny, told RFE/RL in an e-mail that some of the removed accounts "were administrators of several pages, and therefore when the accounts were removed, this affected the pages they were admins of."

The social-media giant announced on April 3 that it had removed 70 Facebook accounts, 138 Facebook pages, and 65 Instagram accounts, almost all of which were in the Russian language and focused on Russian-language audiences.

Facebook said that the pages and accounts were removed "solely because they were controlled by the IRA -- not based on the content."

U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller
U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller

"We expect we will find more, and if we do we will take them down too," it added.

The Russian news agency RBK, which has published groundbreaking reporting on IRA efforts to exert influence on U.S. politics, suggested the Moscow City Hall page may have been removed due to a potential link with Gleb Vasilchenko, one of the Russians indicted in Mueller's investigation.

A person using that same name uploaded a video last year to the Moscow City Hall economic department's official page on Russia's popular social-networking site VKontakte, RBK reported on April 4.

The agency said the video was removed from the department's VKontakte page after it inquired about the possible links to Vasilchenko, who has previously denied to RBK that he worked for the St. Petersburg troll factory.

The U.S. indictment alleges that Vasilchenko was "responsible for posting, monitoring, and updating the social-media content of many" IRA-linked accounts "while posing as U.S. persons or U.S. grassroots organizations."

It asserts that he "later served as the head of two subgroups focused on operations to interfere in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election."

The spokeswoman for the Moscow City Hall economic department, who declined to give her name, said Vasilchenko had no relation to her office.

The department's Facebook page had around 6,600 subscribers prior to its removal, according to Internet archives.

Asked to comment on the RBK report and whether he had uploaded the video in question, the VKontakte user in question responded only with an image of the fictional ogre Shrek of the eponymous animated Hollywood film -- an apparent reference to this reporter's last name.

Asked again to respond, the user sent an image of Shrek with the caption: "What the Shrek just happened."

Russia has vigorously denied meddling in the U.S. election, and President Vladimir Putin has said Russia will never extradite the 13 individuals indicted in Mueller's investigation.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on April 5 that the Kremlin "regrets" Facebook's removal of the alleged IRA-linked accounts this week.

"We are, without a doubt, following the situation," he said.

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