Facebook finds pro-Trump group helped make hundreds of accounts to spam comments with attacks on Biden

Social media giant finds Turning Point USA enlisted marketing group for ‘coordinated inauthentic behavior’ campaign, Facebook says

Alex Woodward
New York
Thursday 08 October 2020 18:39
Charlie Kirk, Founder and Exec. Dir. of Turning Point USA, speaks on the first day of the Republican National Convention
Charlie Kirk, Founder and Exec. Dir. of Turning Point USA, speaks on the first day of the Republican National Convention

Facebook has removed hundreds of fake accounts tied to right-wing group Turning Point USA, which enlisted a now-banned marketing group to flood comment sections of news stories to attack Joe Biden and Democrats while praising Donald Trump.

The social media company announced on Thursday that marketing firm Rally Forge had worked with Turning Point USA to make 200 profiles and 55 pages on the platform and 76 on Instagram, beginning in 2018 and continuing through 2020.

Facebook said the accounts violated the company’s polices about “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” that relied “on real people, not automation” to “create the perception of wide-spread support of their narratives by leaving comments on posts by media entities and public figures.”

Roughly 373,000 people followed one or more of those pages, and 22,000 people followed on or more of those Instagram accounts.

Many accounts consisted of stock profile photos, posing as right-leaning users. The company found that in 2018, some of those accounts had posed as left-leaning users.

This activity was centered primarily around commenting on news articles posted by news organizations and public figures, rather than posting their own content,” the company said in a statement on its blog. “Its election-focused behavior began in 2018 in the run-up to the midterms, it then went largely dormant until June 2020.”

Recent activity involved what the company calls “thinly veiled personas” that “were slight variations of the names of the people behind them and whose sole activity on our platform was associated with this deceptive campaign.”

“We assess this shift in tactics is likely due to the majority of this network’s fake accounts getting caught by our automated detection systems,” the company said.

At least one account promoted false claims about mail-in ballots, as the president and his allies continue to air unfounded allegations of voter fraud, while voting rights advocates have condemned Republican efforts to suppress votes across the US.

Facebook banned Rally Forge from its platforms, while Turning Point USA remains active, with nearly 2 million followers.

The organisation’s founder Charlie Kirk was the first speaker at the 2020 Republican National Convention.

In June, the president addressed a rally at a megachurch in Phoenix hosted by the group.

Facebook latest move follows September reporting from The Washington Post that suggested a “secret campaign” to sow disinformation about 2020 elections was underway through “troll farms” from the conservative Turning Point USA. In response to its reporting, Twitter banned several accounts allegedly involved with similar efforts.

On Wednesday, Facebook announced the company will temporarily block US political adverts on its platforms when polls close on Election Day.

Facebook also said it would “remove calls for people to engage in poll watching when those calls use militarised language or suggest that the goal is to intimidate, exert control, or display power over election officials or voters," taking aim at ads the president’s campaign asking for “every able-bodied man and woman to join Army for Trump’s election security operation."

In the event that the president, who commands a massive audience on social media platforms, declares victory before the results are collected, the company said it would send notifications to Facebook and Instagram users on election night with the latest results. 

The company “will add more specific information in the notifications that counting is still in progress and no winner has been determined," it said.

When polls close, the company will attach labels to candidates’ posts directing people to Facebook’s voting information centre.

This week, the company issued a platform-wide ban on QAnon-related groups, pages and profiles, bringing its policy on the conspiracy movement closer to its policies governing “militarised social movements" such as terror groups.

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