Facebook purges over 800 US accounts spewing political spam

Facebook said it has removed hundreds of United States-based accounts and pages for violating its anti-spam policies. The social media giant’s announcement comes just a month before the US congressional midterm elections.

Background

Social media company Facebook has been under scrutiny to crack down on content that could disrupt democratic processes. After the 2016 US presidential election, Facebook revealed Russian operatives had attempted to use the platform to influence US politics and public opinion.

In 2017, the company announced a purge of hundreds of fake accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency – a Russian troll farm that tried to influence American politics and social discourse around the time of the 2016 election. The fraudulent profiles and pages disseminated inflammatory memes and comments on divisive issues such as race, immigration and guns, as well as content praising Donald Trump and denigrating Hillary Clinton. Facebook removed $167,000 worth of ads purchased by the Russian-controlled pages since 2015.

Over the past few months, Facebook identified multiple new campaigns and hundreds of fraudulent designed to influence users around the world – including in the US, the Middle East, Russia and the UK - via misinformation and coordinated inauthentic behavior.

Analysis

Less than a month before the US midterm elections, Facebook announced it has removed 559 pages and 251 accounts for breaking its rules against “spam and coordinated inauthentic behavior.” The company said this batch of accounts and pages were focused on exploiting the site for financial gain and churned out misleading political clickbait and spam.

“Many were using fake accounts or multiple accounts with the same names and posted massive amounts of content across a network of Groups and Pages to drive traffic to their websites,” Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy Nathaniel Gleicher and product manager Oscar Rodrigeuz wrote in a blog post. “Many used the same techniques to make their content appear more popular on Facebook than it really was. Others were ad farms using Facebook to mislead people into thinking that they were forums for legitimate political debate.”

The affected pages included Nation in Distress, Reverb Press, The Resistance, Right Wing News, Reasonable People Unite and Snowflakes. The “Nation in Distress” page billed itself the “first online publication to endorse President Donald J Trump” and posted content that praised Trump and attacked Democrats. Since 2012, it garnered more than 3.2 million likes and over 3 million followers.

Another page – “Reverb Press” – had more than 774,000 followers and posted content that criticized Trump and referred to Republicans as “cheating scumbags.”

Facebook noted that it removed these pages and accounts because of the “inauthentic” behaviour they engaged in and spammy tactics used such as using fake profiles or repeatedly posting identical content, rather than the type of content they posted.

“This is why it’s so important we look at these actors’ behavior – such as whether they’re using fake accounts or repeatedly posting spam – rather than their content when deciding which of these accounts, Pages or Groups to remove,” Facebook said. “As we get better at uncovering this kind of abuse, the people behind it — whether economically or politically motivated — will change their tactics to evade detection. It’s why we continue to invest heavily, including in better technology, to prevent this kind of misuse.”

The announcement comes after Facebook cracked down on the Russian database provider Social Data Hub for allegedly scraping personal information about Facebook users. The company said 66 SocialDataHub accounts, profiles, pages and apps were removed from the social media network.

However, Facebook has struggled with policing of content on its website and the balance between freedom of speech and offensive content. Its latest decision to purge fraudulent pages and accounts could draw criticism and accusations of political bias and censorship.

Assessment

Our assessment is that Facebook’s purging of fraudulent accounts so close to the midterm elections in November highlights the fact that sensationalist content and misinformation still remain a serious threat to democracy. However, we believe that the policing of such content and identifying the difference between legitimate debate and fake news is increasingly difficult. While walking the tightrope between free speech and cracking down on harmful content, Facebook and other social media companies facing similar issues should be cautious about overstepping into thought policing and censorship.