By Dustin Volz
Facebook Inc. said it removed a network of accounts with links
to a U.S. conservative political youth group for posing as fake
users to praise President Trump and criticize his Democratic rival,
The social-media giant's move is among a number of steps it has
taken in recent weeks to curb misinformation on the platform and
one of its most high-profile actions against a domestic political
operator. It reflects growing concern, with Americans already
casting ballots in the coming election, about the potential reach
of political disinformation that emanates from domestic sources,
rather than foreign ones.
The company said Thursday it had removed 200 Facebook accounts,
55 Facebook pages and 76 Instagram accounts that were run by Rally
Forge, a U.S. marketing firm, for violating rules against
"coordinated inauthentic behavior." Rally Forge, which Facebook
said is now banned permanently, was working on behalf of two
clients, including Turning Point USA, a Phoenix-based conservative
Turning Point USA was founded by Charlie Kirk, a prominent
conservative activist and staunch Trump supporter who spoke at the
Republican National Convention in August.
The social-media campaign, which dated back to 2018 and saw
resurgent activity in June of this year, included using fake
accounts that posed as politically conservative people in the U.S.
to comment on content shared by others, Facebook said. In 2018 the
operation also included posing as left-leaning individuals, the
About 373,000 accounts followed one or more of the Facebook
pages and 22,000 followed one or more of the Instagram accounts,
and Rally Forge spent $973,000 on Facebook and Instagram ads
connected to both authentic and inauthentic accounts that were
removed, Facebook said.
The topics of focus included the presidential race, the 2018
midterm elections and the coronavirus. Facebook identified the
operation as posting frequent recent comments on pages run by major
media outlets, including the New York Times, the Washington Post
and Fox News.
Facebook said the campaign deployed thinly veiled personas in
which the account names used were slight variations of the real
names of individuals operating them.
Turning Point USA said the activity at issue was a project for
Turning Point Action, an affiliated organization that has greater
freedoms concerning political advocacy and lobbying.
"Turning Point Action works hard to operate within social
platforms' [terms of service] on all of its projects and
communications and we hope to work closely with FB to rectify any
misunderstanding," the group said in a statement Thursday.
Rally Forge didn't immediately respond to a request for
Facebook took action following a Washington Post article last
month reporting that Turning Point Action was paying teenagers to
post spam-like content on social media in a manner that some
experts likened to a domestic troll farm.
"The activity Facebook disclosed today was by Americans targeted
at Americans," said Alex Stamos, director of Stanford University's
Internet Observatory. "It seems clear that for a certain set of
professional political operator, manipulating social media has
become a standard product offering."
The company took down 46 accounts in August that were operated
by a U.S. communications firm Facebook said was engaged in
coordinated inauthentic activity targeting Venezuela, Mexico and
Because Facebook has become good at spotting profile photos that
are reused from the internet, this group instead chose images
generated using artificial intelligence to try to evade detection,
said Mr. Stamos, Facebook's former chief security officer. This
kind of tactic is becoming standard in such operations and was also
used by a Russian-linked campaign that Facebook disrupted last
month, he said.
"It used to require no technical skills at all to run a troll
farm," Mr. Stamos said, but now they are becoming more critical for
such efforts to succeed.
Rally Forge also appeared to be spreading inauthentic comments
about trophy- or sport hunting on behalf of its other client,
Inclusive Conservation Group, an environmental organization,
Facebook said. While Rally Forge's work focused primarily on U.S.
audiences, some content was aimed at Kenya and Botswana.
Inclusive Conservation Group didn't immediately respond to a
request for comment.
Facebook banned Rally Forge because the tech giant found clear
evidence that the group's behavior violated its platforms' terms of
service, Nathaniel Gliecher, Facebook's head of cybersecurity
policy, said on a press call Thursday. Though Turning Point USA
held some on-platform links to the inauthentic campaign, Mr.
Gleicher indicated Facebook didn't have sufficient evidence to
penalize the conservative group as well, though he said the
investigation was continuing.
"One of the things we have learned is that we have to take
action based on evidence we see on our platform," Mr. Gleicher
said. "Here we see clear evidence that Rally Forge is engaged on
this, and we've taken action on that behavior."
--Robert McMillan contributed to this article.
Write to Dustin Volz at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
October 08, 2020 13:37 ET (17:37 GMT)
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