Facebook said it shut down a large network of fake accounts spreading memes and propaganda about U.S. politics that promoted Donald Trump and attacked his rivals.
In an unusual twist, some of the bogus Facebook accounts as part of the “coordinated inauthentic activity” ring used profile photos generated by artificial intelligence to create the appearance that the fake users were Americans, who then joined Facebook Groups to post political content, the company said.
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According to Facebook, the network centered on U.S.-based media company The BL, whose bogus accounts had about 55 million total followers across Facebook and Instagram (most of which were outside the U.S.). Facebook said The BL network, operated by individuals in the U.S. and Vietnam, was linked to Epoch Media Group, the publisher of The Epoch Times which is tied to the Falun Gong religious movement. (The Epoch Times and The BL have denied that they are affiliated.)
“The BL is now banned from Facebook,” Nathaniel Gleicher, the company’s head of security policy, said in a blog post. “To evade our enforcement, they used a combination of fake and authentic accounts of local individuals in the U.S. to manage Pages and Groups.”
The BL operation spent nearly $9.5 million on Facebook and Instagram ads, according to the company.
On Facebook, the account owners operating the The BL network “typically posted memes and other content about U.S. political news and issues including impeachment, conservative ideology, political candidates, elections, trade, family values, and freedom of religion,” Gleicher wrote. According to researchers, the network mainly pushed messages supporting Trump and opposing the Chinese government.
Material that The BL’s fake accounts posted included: a link to an Epoch Times story, “Elizabeth Warren’s Campaign Fires Top Official Following Complaints of ‘Inappropriate Behavior'”; a link to a Spanish-language website run by The BL that quoted Trump complaining about Rep. Adam Schiff; and a link to an article on The BL’s main site with the headline “Pelosi delegation visits Middle East without authority to negotiate with foreign leaders.”
The network comprised 610 Facebook accounts, 89 Facebook Pages, 156 Facebook Groups and 72 Instagram accounts that originated in Vietnam and the U.S. and focused primarily on the U.S. along with other users worldwide in Vietnamese-, Spanish- and Chinese-language posts, according to Facebook.
Also Friday, Twitter said it suspended about 700 accounts originating from Vietnam that were evidently part of the same network for violating its rules banning fake accounts and spam.
The BL’s pro-Trump network of Facebook accounts was first identified by Snopes last month. Meanwhile, Facebook had previously banned the Epoch Times from advertising on the platform, following an NBC News investigation in August revealing that the publication deceptively purchased $1.5 million in ads with pro-Trump messages.
In addition, Facebook announced Friday that it has shut down a smaller social-media-manipulation ring, originating from the country of Georgia, that used fake accounts to increase engagement on their pages, which masqueraded as “news organizations and impersonated political parties, public figures, activist groups and media entities.” The accounts on Facebook and Instagram had about 442,300 followers.
And separately Friday, Twitter announced that it disabled 5,929 accounts — which it linked to an operation backed by the government of Saudi Arabia — for violating its “platform manipulation” policies. Those represented the core of a larger network of more than 88,000 accounts engaged “in spammy behavior across a wide range of topics,” all of which have been permanently suspended, according to Twitter. The network of fake accounts was primarily “amplifying messages favorable to Saudi authorities, mainly through inauthentic engagement tactics such as aggressive liking, retweeting and replying,” Twitter said.
Twitter’s investigation traced the source of the coordinated activity to Smaat, a Saudi social-media marketing firm that managed a range of Twitter accounts “for high-profile individuals, as well as many government departments in Saudi Arabia,” the company said. Twitter has banned Smaat and its senior execs from the service. Reuters reported that Smaat is headed by Ahmed Aljbreen, whom the FBI in November charged — along with two ex-employees of Twitter — with spying on behalf of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.