Yesterday, on July 31st, Facebook published a news release titled “Removing Bad Actors on Facebook”, detailing an alleged attempt by fake accounts, or “bad actors” to influence the upcoming US midterm elections. In this crackdown, the social media company removed 32 pages from Facebook and Instagram, cited for “inauthentic behavior”. These accounts had an accumulated total of 290 000 followers, 9 500 organic posts, 150 paid advertisements and 30 planned events.
While the identity and source of the accounts has yet to be determined, the news release mentions possible connections to the infamous Russian-based Internet Research Agency, implicated in tampering with the social media conversation around the 2016 election.
Ever since earlier this year, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had to testify before Congress on the Cambridge Analytica privacy breach, the platform has been engaged in an ever-increasing crackdown of potential abuses.
During that testimony, several Republican congressmen pressed Mr. Zuckerberg to elaborate whether Facebook is indeed a neutral platform, citing the removal of right-leaning content like the ban on Diamond and Silk, the page of two African American conservative Trump supporters.
However what’s interesting about the recent findings is the fact that most of the pages removed in yesterday’s bust are left-leaning. The largest pages removed from the website were: Aztlan Warriors, Black Elevation, Mindful Being and Registers, three of which are overtly left-wing and political.
This could mean two things: either Facebook is taking its commitment to political neutrality seriously, or there is a foreign interest in fabricating opposition leading up to the midterms. The second line of reasoning seems to be likelier.
The largest planned event page removed by Facebook was a protest set to take place on August 12th titled “No Unite the Right 2 – DC”. The page had 2 600 users interested in attending the event and was coordinating transportation, organization and engaging with existing left-wing groups like BLM and the antifacist movement. Some users and pages expressed outrage and censorship on the page’s removal, claiming that Facebook is attempting to shut down a legitimate protest.
Facebook claims that the purposes of these inauthentic accounts is to sow discord and are “designed to catalyze the most incendiary impulses of political sentiment” from liberal activists. For example, one of the pages, Aztlan Warriors, posted a photo titled “resistance” depicting an Aztec warrior brandishing an AK 47. While Aztlan Warriors seems to be geared towards indigenous resistance, Registers has radical feminist undertones and Black Elevation targets the black power community.
In general, the content provided as examples don’t seem to overtly break any Facebook guidelines. The issue taken with them is the inauthentic use of the platform, not the content itself. Facebook has allowed more contentious left-wing content and accounts to continue to operate, even if they break one or several usage guidelines. Yet conservative accounts seem to be continuously removed without reason or on spurious grounds.
Then there’s the strange case of Mindful Being, which from the evidence cited so far has no overt political message. Their content contains motivational and psychedelic material. While the page has been proven to be inauthentic, it is hard to see how psychadelic art and “freeing your mind” memes might directly influence the midterm elections.
Facebook has confirmed that the findings have indeed been shared with congress and law enforcement agencies. In the near future, the research group Atlantic Council will be releasing a detailed analysis of the content removed from Facebook on Tuesday.