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Facebook takes down Brazil environmental disinformation network with ties to military

FILE PHOTO: A man stands in front of a sign of Meta, the new name for the company formerly known as Facebook, at its headquarters in Menlo Park

By Brad Haynes

SAO PAULO (Reuters) -Facebook owner Meta Platforms said on Thursday it had removed a network of social media accounts with ties to the Brazilian military that posed as fake nonprofits to play down the dangers of deforestation.

Although the individuals involved in the network were active military personnel, Meta's investigation did not find enough evidence to establish if they were following orders or acting independently, said a person with knowledge of the matter.

Meta's quarterly report could be damaging to Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro. The far-right former army captain, a longtime skeptic of environmentalism, has deployed the armed forces to the Amazon on unsuccessful missions to reduce destruction of the world's largest rainforest.

The takedown operation, Meta's first to hit a network focused primarily on environmental issues, may also add fire to Bolsonaro's attacks on large tech firms, which he accuses of stifling conservative voices on their platforms.

Critics say Bolsonaro and his supporters use the platforms to spread dangerous disinformation undermining Brazil's democratic institutions.

In its report, Meta said the unidentified network, which was limited in scale and authentic engagement, used fake accounts on Facebook and Instagram to post initially about land reform and the pandemic in 2020 before turning its focus to environmental issues last year.

"In 2021, they created Pages that posed as fictitious NGOs and activists focused on environmental issues in the Amazonas region of Brazil. They posted about deforestation, including arguing that not all of it is harmful, and criticizing legitimate environmental NGOs who spoke out against deforestation in the Amazon," Meta said in its report.

"Although the people behind (the network) attempted to conceal their identities and coordination, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Brazilian Military."

Meta declined to provide additional information about its investigation.

Brazil's army said in a statement it was aware of Meta's allegations, and had reached out to the company for access to the data underpinning its claims of military involvement.

It said it required all of its members to practice "truth, probity and honesty."

Bolsonaro's office did not reply to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Brad HaynesWriting and additional reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; editing by John Stonestreet and Sandra Maler)