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U.S. groups use Russia playbook to spread disinformation online

U.S. groups use Russia playbook to spread disinformation online

Ahead of the midterm elections, false and divisive messages are increasingly being created
U.S. groups use Russia playbook to spread disinformation online
A screenshot of Right Wing News’s Facebook page.
Photographer: via The New York Times

SAN FRANCISCO — When Christine Blasey Ford testified before Congress last month about Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual assault, an online news site called Right Wing News sprang into action on Facebook.

The conservative site, run by blogger John Hawkins, had created a series of new Facebook pages and accounts over the last year under many different names, according to Facebook.

After Blasey testified, Right Wing News posted several false stories about her — including the suggestion that her lawyers were being bribed by Democrats — and then used the network of Facebook pages and accounts to share the pieces so that they proliferated online quickly, social media researchers said.

Also online: Facebook purged over 800 accounts and pages pushing political messages for profit

The result was a real-time spreading of disinformation started by Americans, for Americans.

What Right Wing News did was part of a shift in the flow of online disinformation, falsehoods meant to mislead and inflame. In 2016, before the presidential election, state-backed Russian operatives exploited Facebook and Twitter to sway voters in the United States with divisive messages. Now, weeks before the midterm elections on Nov. 6, such influence campaigns are increasingly a domestic phenomenon fomented by Americans on the left and the right.

“There are now well-developed networks of Americans targeting other Americans with purposefully designed manipulations,” said Molly McKew, an information warfare researcher at the New Media Frontier, a firm that studies social media.

Politics has always involved shadings of the truth via whisper campaigns, direct-mail operations and negative ads bordering on untrue. What is different this time is how domestic sites are directly emulating the Russian playbook of 2016 by aggressively creating networks of Facebook pages and accounts — many of them fake — that make it appear as if the ideas they are promoting enjoy widespread popularity, researchers said. The activity is also happening on Twitter, they said.

The shift toward domestic disinformation raises potential free speech issues when Facebook and Twitter find and curtail such accounts that originate in the United States. “These networks are trying to manipulate people by manufacturing consensus — that’s crossing the line over free speech,” said Ryan Fox, a co-founder of New Knowledge, a firm that tracks disinformation.

This month, Twitter took down a network of 50 accounts that it said were being run by Americans posing as Republican state lawmakers. Twitter said the accounts were geared toward voters in all 50 states.

On Thursday, Facebook said it had identified 559 pages and 251 accounts run by Americans, many of which amplified false and misleading content in a coordinated fashion. The company said it would remove the pages and accounts. Among them were Right Wing News, which had more than 3.1 million followers, and left-wing pages that included the Resistance and Reverb Press, which had 240,000 and 816,000 followers.

Facebook said it would be the most domestic pages and accounts it had ever removed related to influence campaigns. The company said it had discovered the activity as part of its broader effort to root out election interference and because the pages had become more aggressive in using tactics like fake accounts and multiple pages to make themselves appear more popular.

“If you look at volume, the majority of the information operations we see are domestic actors,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security. He added that the company was struggling with taking down the domestic networks because of the blurry lines between free speech and disinformation.

Gleicher said the accounts and pages that Facebook took down on Thursday violated its rules about online spam and that many of the domestic organizations probably had financial motivations for spreading disinformation.

But while traditional spam networks typically use celebrity gossip or stories about natural disasters to get people to click on links that take them to ad-filled websites, these networks were now using political content to attract people’s attention.

“Today, sensational political content seems to be a more effective way for people to build an audience for their Pages and drive traffic to their websites, which earn them money for every visitor to the site,” Gleicher said.

Right Wing News and Hawkins did not return calls or emails seeking comment. Administrators for the Facebook pages for the Resistance and Reverb Press also did not respond to requests for comment.

With the rise of domestic disinformation, the distribution of inflammatory and false posts by foreign sources appears to be less prominent — or may be more hidden — these days. Facebook and other social media companies have adopted measures to hunt for and remove foreign interference on their sites.

Those efforts are starting to show some results. In July, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube announced they had identified and eliminated a new Russian network aimed at influencing Americans before the midterms.

Domestic disinformation is harder to root out than foreign disinformation, researchers said, because in many cases it mirrors genuine networks of Americans engaging in free speech online. Social media services can only act to remove domestic disinformation when the American groups that are making and distributing it start to use techniques that violate the companies’ terms of service, such as creating false accounts.

“Facebook’s tactics are extremely ineffective in stopping these networks of hundreds of Facebook pages and accounts from spreading disinformation,” said Natalie Martinez, a fellow at Media Matters, a nonprofit in Washington that monitors disinformation from conservative American sites. “Ultimately, if you are a U.S. national and you decide to share something, the social networks have no reason to stop you.”

Right Wing News was founded by Hawkins, a conservative pundit, in 2009. Facebook said Right Wing News started its Facebook page in July 2012. That page typically published dozens of posts each day, with most of them linking to the stand-alone website for Right Wing News or to the publication’s YouTube channels.

Over the past few months, Right Wing News’ Facebook page has increased its activity, researchers said. During the time that Kavanaugh testified in Congress, Right Wing News — and several Facebook pages that mirror it by posting the same content and that were controlled by a similar group of administrators — pushed out numerous articles that questioned the veracity of a lie-detector test that Blasey took and why she had come forward with her accusations.

Facebook said that administrators for Right Wing News’ Facebook page appeared to change regularly. Some of the administrators ran multiple Facebook accounts under the same names, a violation of the company’s terms, Facebook said.

Right Wing News also used Facebook ads to spread its content through other Facebook pages. In June, the Daily Vine, an American-run Facebook page linked to Right Wing News, published a Facebook ad for a false story that claimed that 412 Muslim men in Michigan had been arrested in the “largest bust in U.S. history.” (The Department of Justice investigation that the story was based on revealed a network of 412 people involved in opioid-related crimes, but they were neither exclusively Muslim nor based in Michigan.)

Facebook said the ad was paid for by Right Wing News and was allowed according to its rules, which let American citizens and residents place political ads. Though Facebook has since taken down The Daily Vine page, and the ad is no longer running, it was viewed as many as 50,000 times between June 19 and June 20, according to Facebook’s metrics. The Daily Vine could not be reached for comment.

Martinez said Facebook taking action against Right Wing News and other domestic disinformation networks would stem some of the flow of false content — but only for a little while.

“There is little to stop them from spawning off as a new page, or account, and just starting to build their network again,” she said. “They can just keep trying to get around Facebook’s rules.”

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