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Facebook’s Purge Of Political Pages Fuels Delusion Of Insurgent Threats To Democracy

Facebook’s purge of more than 500 pages and 250 accounts ahead of midterm elections in the United States represents a massive trend to police social media activity in ways that put freedom of expression at risk.

This trend effectively discourages users from engaging in radical politics. It may be viewed as part of a counterinsurgency effort by a powerful social media company to assure a passive majority of Americans that they are properly guarding a widely used platform from alleged threats to democracy.

On October 11, Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, and Oscar Rodriguez, the company’s product manager, published a press release about the purge.

“We’re removing 559 pages and 251 accounts that have consistently broken our rules against spam and coordinated inauthentic behavior,” Gleicher and Rodriguez stated. “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.”

According to Gleicher and Rodriguez, these techniques were used by groups and pages to make content “appear more popular” than it truly was on Facebook.

Both suggested some of the pages and accounts were “ad farms” that misled users into believing they were “forums for legitimate political debate.”

Unfortunately, Facebook offered minimal transparency on the action. Administrators with removed pages or accounts were apparently given no specifics other than a notice that they were shut down.

Several of the pages and accounts removed were right-wing and known for boosting President Donald Trump and his administration’s agenda. There were also dozens of progressive or left-wing pages, which were taken down.

Anti-Media, an anti-establishment independent media site with two million followers, had its page removed. Carey Wedler, editor at Anti-Media, did not lose her personal Facebook page with over 100,000 followers, but almost simultaneously, Twitter sent a notice that Wedler’s account was suspended.

The Free Thought Project, Reverb Press, Press For Truth, and Rachel Blevins, an RT America correspondent, had their pages taken down.

Pages that document abuse by police were removed—Police the Police, Filming Cops, Cop Block, and Cop Logic. Both Police the Police and Filming Cops each had over a million followers.

“There are legitimate reasons that accounts and pages coordinate with each other—it’s the bedrock of fundraising campaigns and grassroots organizations,” Gleicher and Rodriguez stated. “But the difference is that these groups are upfront about who they are, and what they’re up to.”

Yet, none of the aforementioned pages, which have protested their removal, hid their missions from followers. They were very upfront about their political motives or agendas for social justice.

Gleicher and Rodriguez concluded, “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. Because people will only share on Facebook if they feel safe and trust the connections they make here.”

The last sentences of Facebook’s press release make it clear that the company took this action to protect their brand. They were concerned about how these pages or accounts were impacting the experience of more passive, or even apathetic, users.

Administrators also recognize that politicians on Capitol Hill are watching. As Senator Dianne Feinstein told executives during a recent Senate hearing, “You’ve created these platforms, and now they are being misused. And you have to be the ones to do something about it or we will.”

On October 17, Twitter also acknowledged pressure from upcoming midterm elections to guard against alleged “influence operations.” It released a dataset it said was linked to operations during the 2016 election.

“We will continue to proactively combat nefarious attempts to undermine the integrity of Twitter, while partnering with civil society, government, our industry peers, and researchers to improve our collective understanding of coordinated attempts to interfere in the public conversation,” the social media company pledged.”

No executives at any Silicon Valley tech corporation want the government to introduce regulations. With parts of the public, especially those in the liberal establishment clamoring for action, Facebook and other companies are taking steps to supposedly fix the problem.

Cracking Down On “Influence Campaigns”

Facebook’s mass removal of pages and accounts was the company’s most extensive crackdown on “influence campaigns” since it started policing its platform. Most U.S. media outlets described the offending pages and accounts as purveyors of “political spam.”

The New York Times reported on Facebook’s purge with an article that was headlined, “Facebook Tackles Rising Threat: Americans Aping Russian Schemes to Deceive.”

Ironically, this was misinformation. At no point did the Times demonstrate that the removed pages or accounts were inspired or influenced by “Russian schemes,” which may or may not have been employed during the 2016 presidential election.

What the Times did do is conflate Russia-based activity with the operation of these accounts because those users may have wielded similar tactics to extend their reach. This is as disingenuous as suggesting someone who relies on Internet privacy tools is using terrorist tactics because terrorists want to hide their location, too.

The push to impose more control over the exchange of information on Facebook stems from a widespread belief that the Russia-based Internet Research Agency conducted a campaign through more than 400 accounts and pages that relied on ads and false information to “create discord and harm” Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The content was supposedly viewed by as many as 126 million Americans.

But in a paper on the 2016 presidential election by Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen, and Jie Chen from the Institute for New Economic Thinking, they show that this number is rather paltry. Americans saw at least 33 trillion posts in their news feeds between 2015 and 2017. Facebook even said a quarter of ads may have never been viewed by anyone.

The Senate intelligence committee reported minuscule ad numbers in key battleground states. In Wisconsin, $1,979 was spent. All but $54 were spent during the primary. Pennsylvania absorbed $823 and Michigan $300. “Unless Facebook discloses some vast new trove, the conclusion has to be that this was no full court press,” the report stated.

As the authors note, a few studies labeled sites as “Russian” or “Russian-influenced” simply because they have “politically distasteful” views that perhaps align with the agenda of Russia or run counter to U.S. foreign policy. This inappropriately counted non-mainstream or so-called fringe websites as part of an alleged Russian influence operation.

A far more extensive influence operation was likely perpetrated by networks highly capable of spreading right-wing messages in sophisticated manners.

“Our clearest and most significant observation is that the American political system has seen not a symmetrical polarization of the two sides of the political map, but rather the emergence of a discrete and relatively insular right-wing media ecosystem whose shape and communications practices differ sharply from the rest of the media ecosystem, ranging from the center-right to the left,” a Harvard study [PDF] on the 2016 election concluded.

The infiltrators sowing discord were aligned with Republicans and based in the United States. Like Ferguson, Jorgensen, and Chen contend, “By 2016, the Republican right had developed internet outreach and political advertising into a fine art and on a massive scale quite on its own.”

“Large numbers of conservative websites, including many that tolerated or actively encouraged white supremacy and contempt for immigrants, African-Americans, Hispanics, Jews, or the aspirations of women had been hard at work for years stoking up ‘tensions between groups already wary of one another.’ Breitbart and other organizations were in fact going global, opening offices abroad and establishing contacts with like-minded groups elsewhere.”

“Whatever the Russians were up to, they could hardly hope to add much value to the vast Made in America bombardment already underway. Nobody sows chaos like Breitbart or the Drudge Report, as the New York Times documented in one Idaho town,” the paper added.

Recognizing the influence of right-wing messaging networks during the 2016 election is critical. In fact, a list of removed pages posted by Western Journal suggests the vast majority of pages and accounts removed were right-wing. A minority were cop watch pages or libertarian pages against government abuses. An even smaller minority were liberal or Democratic pages.

Therefore, journalists are wrong to suggest there is some kind of balance between the left-wing and right-wing when it comes to spreading “fake news” or misinformation on social media platforms.

Part Of The Counterrevolution

It is difficult to discern whether police accountability or alternative media pages, which protested their removal, were targeted for the dissenting perspectives on their pages. What is more likely is that these pages were flagged by a Facebook algorithm.

“Bad content” to Facebook includes “false news,” “hate speech,” “spam,” “graphic violence,” “clickbait,” and “links to low quality web experiences (ad farms).” Given the company’s description of an “ad farm,” a page that linked to a website cluttered with ads, which were embedded to ensure server bills were paid, could be construed as an “ad farm.”

As Emma Llansó, the director of the Free Expression Project for the Center for Democracy and Technology, told the Guardian, there are a  “lot of people who fervently believe their political views and are trying to drive traffic to their posts and ideas. They’re probably also running ads on their sites to make money off doing so. The line between spammer activity with a financial motive and spammy-looking political advocacy is incredibly hard to draw.”

Facebook’s press release demonstrated indifference to the administrators of political pages, who use “backup” or fake accounts in order defend themselves from political opponents who may campaign to have their real accounts suspended.

Reverb’s page was verified by Facebook. As the Guardian reported, Reverb editor-in-chief Edward Lynn was never contacted by anyone with the company about any violations of standards.

Similarly, Brian Kolfage, who administered the Right Wing News page, which was shut down with three other pages, emailed back and forth with a Facebook executive. There were plans for a meeting so he could better understand how to comply with policies. The company chose not to work with Kolfage.

On October 17, Facebook deleted a video featuring journalist George Monbiot on the brutal colonial legacy of Christopher Columbus. It was up more than a week and had 900,000 views before it was taken down.

Again, the social media company was completely opaque in its decision. It may have been flagged as a result of graphic images in the video, but Facebook did not bother to offer an explanation.

Facebook announced a partnership in May with an influential think tank known as the Atlantic Council to help the company detect “emerging threats” and “disinformation campaigns.”  The organization formed after the North Atlantic Treaty was signed in 1949, and it is committed to maintaining America’s global dominance.

When Facebook removed 32 “suspicious pages” that were run by activists in August, it relied on the think tank’s Digital Forensic Research Lab to “point out similarities to fake Russian pages from 2016.” However, one of the pages removed was an event page for a counter-protest against a Unite the Right rally in Washington, D.C.

In Bernard Harcourt’s book, The Counterrevolution: How Our Government Went To War Against Its Own Citizens, he outlines his theory of the current paradigm citizens live under in the United States. Counterinsurgency has been systematically domesticated, even though there is “no real insurgency or active minority.”

“The Counterrevolution” creates this illusion of an “active minority.” When it comes to social media, the “active minority” is fringe political pages that are sowing discord by spreading “fake news” or misinformation. It is remarkable that part of the crackdown involved police accountability pages because law enforcement, which perpetuates this paradigm, benefits greatly from passive Americans believing cop watch pages on Facebook are “political spam.”

Or, more sinisterly, the pages and accounts are seen as employing tactics similar to Russian influence operations, which increases the fear of doing nothing to shut them down and justifies dramatic action—even if wholly innocent pages or users are censored.

Facebook may not be silencing dissenting perspectives deliberately, but in “The Counterrevolution,” it does not have to bother with restoring pages and accounts wrongfully taken down. Those pages and accounts are collateral damage. They were not specifically targeted. The social media company can claim it never intended to crack down on political speech and defend an action that is designed to give consumers and political elites the illusion that they are guarding the internet from perceived threats.

That is not to say there are no threats to democracy in the United States. A few weeks before Election Day, there are countless reports of voter suppression. But these threats do not manifest themselves in one’s news feed on Facebook. Rather, they come from Republican officials who use state apparatuses to make it harder for citizens to challenge their destructive and discriminatory agendas.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."