Anti-Racism Groups Feel Tarred by Facebook’s Fight Against Fake Accounts

Latest discovery underscores challenge of countering disinformation campaigns.

A car passes by Facebook's corporate headquarters in Menlo Park, California, on March 21. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
A car passes by Facebook's corporate headquarters in Menlo Park, California, on March 21. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

Anti-racism activists are complaining that Facebook’s decision to remove an event page announcing their upcoming rally in Washington, D.C., on the suspicion that the page was part of a Russian disinformation campaign, has created the false impression that their protest was a Kremlin operation.

Facebook announced on Tuesday that it had removed 32 fake accounts from its site and from Instagram—which Facebook owns—because they were engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” allegedly designed to disrupt the U.S. midterm elections.

The deleted accounts included one for a group calling itself Resisters, which billed itself as a feminist activist group. The group created a Facebook event page for an anti-racism rally in Washington set for Aug. 12 to mark the one-year anniversary of the “Unite the Right” protest in Charlottesville, Va.

While Facebook determined that Resisters was a fake account, the rally promoted on its event page was authentic—and had been planned for months by anti-racism activists.

“The worst part is spreading news that makes it sound like we are Russian agents; that is incredibly reckless, harmful, and irresponsible,” said Andrew Batcher, an organizer with Smash Racism, a Washington group that was one of the co-sponsors of the event.

In announcing the purge on Tuesday, Facebook said it had observed links between some of the fake accounts and Russian propaganda groups. But it said it could not determine that the accounts were definitively part of a Kremlin operation.

Still, some U.S. lawmakers described the announcement as evidence that Moscow continues to meddle in American politics in the run-up to the midterm election this November.

“Malicious foreign actors bearing the hallmarks of previously-identified Russian influence campaigns continue to abuse and weaponize social media platforms to influence the U.S. electorate,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said in a statement.

“Foreign influence actors remain readily capable of manipulating raw emotion and societal divisions to prey on unsuspecting Americans who use these same social media tools for legitimate political expression, organization, and advocacy.”

The Aug. 12 protest was organized in response to a planned white nationalist march in Washington, D.C.—“Unite the Right 2.” At the Charlottesville march last year, one person was killed and several were injured when a driver steered his car into a crowd of left-wing counter-protesters.

Batcher, of Smash Racism, said there was never any question that left-wing activists would take to the streets on the anniversary of the event. He said genuine left-wing groups had been involved in planning the rally and that Resisters did little more than create the Facebook event page.

“A lot of us were in the intersection when the car attacked, and a lot of us were medics there,” Batcher said. “So a year later when we are finding out that they are going to do Unite the Right 2, we knew that we are going to organize, it’s a certainty.”

The fake accounts Facebook deleted ranged from feminist activists to Native American power groups to a page promoting mindfulness.

Graham Brookie, the director of the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council think tank, which partners with Facebook to analyze disinformation campaigns, said the latest revelations raise tough questions about how to counter disinformation campaigns.

“One thing that we think a lot about is defining success for this influence operation,” Brookie said.

“In the best case scenario it leads to a very real protest, a counter-protest against Unite the Right. In the other scenario, this network gets identified and exposed, and yet we are still having this conversation about how this a Russian influence operation. It still sows discord and doubt in our political discourse,” he said.

“How do we rise above to not be baited into either scenario?”

According to Facebook’s analysis of the campaign and interviews with Washington activists, the Resisters page created the event page for the Aug. 12 protest and then recruited the activist Brendan Orsinger to run the page. Smash Racism would later sign up as a co-host, along with four other groups. Those groups then began to do the work of actually organizing the event.

Since Facebook’s purge, one of the anti-racism groups created a new event page for the rally.

In a statement on Tuesday, Smash Racism aimed to put any remaining confusion to rest.

This is a real protest in Washington, DC. It is not George Soros. It is not Russia. It is just us.”

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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