Facebook recently concluded an investigation into two unconnected, networks of accounts that combined were responsible for almost 650 Facebook accounts and over 400 pages on the platform. Per Facebook, the first was “part of a domestic-focused network that originated in the country of Georgia,” while the second, the Beauty of Life (BL) network of accounts, caused much more of a stir.
Facebook took down “these Pages, Groups and accounts based on their behavior, not the content they posted. In each of these cases, the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves, and that was the basis for our action.” Basically, these accounts had created sock-puppet accounts that looked like real people, using AI-generated photos, etc.to drive traffic to BL pages. It was effective, it breached the terms of service, so the accounts were taken down. Facebook is clear that this is a terms of service issue, and not a content one.
However, NBC reported that “Facebook took down more than 600 accounts tied to the pro-Trump conspiracy website The Epoch Times for using identities created by artificial intelligence to push stories about a variety of topics including impeachment and elections.” This is misleading phrasing that correlates content to removal.
As part of its investigation, Facebook claims that it found links between BL and Epoch Media Group (EMG), which is the parent group of The Epoch Times. It is this affiliation that mainstream media outlets like NBC and NPR used to make the argument that there was a connection between The Epoch Times content and the removal of the BL network of accounts from Facebook.
The BL, or Beautiful Life network, operates primarily within the US, though it is based in Vietnam. During the course of its investigation, Facebook says it found ties between BL and the EMG, which operates The Epoch Times, among many other news media properties. BL shared The Epoch Times content, as so many other pages. Due to the perceived ties between BL and EMG, Facebook is now investigating the EMG.
EMG has stated that it is not linked to BL. Per a blog post from EMG, “The BL (BL) and its activities have been portrayed as being part of Epoch Media Group (EMG) and by extension The Epoch Times. This is categorically false. EMG has never been affiliated with BL and does not engage in or support the behavior BL is alleged to be involved in… The situation is complicated by the fact that BL is connected with the independent company Đại Kỷ Nguyên (Vietnamese Epoch Times, or VET), with which EMG was forced to cut ties in October 2018.”
Facebook and EMG are in disagreement over the connective tissue between the two networks. The founder of BL had once been employed by the EMG, and employees from Epoch Media came to work for BL. Prior to their leaving the employ of EMG, some of those individuals had been listed as Page admins for EMG Facebook Pages. There was a long lag in those former employees names being removed as admins on the EMG pages.
When asked about the perceived links between The BL and The Epoch Times, a Facebook company spokesperson told The Post Millennial “with all due respect to the publisher of The Epoch Times, he may not know executives at The BL were active admins on Epoch Media Group Pages as recently as this morning [December 20] when their accounts were deactivated and The BL was removed.”
Facebook’s reason for removing BL were that “The people behind this activity made widespread use of fake accounts—many of which had been automatically removed by our systems—to manage Pages and Groups, automate posting at very high frequencies and direct traffic to off-platform sites. Some of these accounts used profile photos generated by artificial intelligence and masqueraded as Americans to join Groups and post the BL content. To evade our enforcement, they used a combination of fake and authentic accounts of local individuals in the US to manage Pages and Groups.”
They go on to say that “Although the people behind this network attempted to conceal their identities and coordination, our investigation linked this activity to Epoch Media Group, a US-based media organization, and individuals in Vietnam working on its behalf. The BL-focused network repeatedly violated a number of our policies, including our policies against coordinated inauthentic behavior, spam and misrepresentation, to name just a few. The BL is now banned from Facebook. We are continuing to investigate all linked networks, and will take action as appropriate if we determine they are engaged in deceptive behavior.”
EMG believes that “The language used by Facebook is irresponsibly unclear. By saying that EMG is ‘linked’ to BL’s activity, Facebook suggests that EMG is responsible for BL’s activities or has coordinated with BL, without Facebook’s statement providing any evidence that this is so. Media outlets have then jumped on the hint Facebook has given, and reported EMG is guilty of activities it has had no part in.”
Facebook security is all about procedure, technical violations and terms of service breaches. They do not credit content, other than those that violate hate speech restrictions, etc., as a reason for removal. Yet NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navaro interviewed Snopes VP of Operations, Vinny Green, about their independent investigation into the link between BL and The Epoch Times.
Garcia-Navaro asks: “This investigation centers around a group called the BL, or Beauty of Life. And you found that it has extensive links to The Epoch Times. So remind us where The Epoch Times sort of lives in the media ecosystem.”
“Yeah. Well, it’s really far-reaching,” Green replied. “Not only do they have a print edition that distributes pretty widely, but they have a very dominant online presence. They’ve really—have established a vast multimedia, multiplatform distribution channel and artificially, through advertising, boost their prominence. And it—so it’s widely read and widely distributed. But it is this very fringe publication. And we’ve discovered that it’s got some other tentacles that are reaching out into the media landscape and—one of which was this vast network called the BL.”
“Yeah. I mean, their main page has more than 6 million followers on Facebook,” Garcia-Navaro chimed in, “and they have ties to the Falun Gong movement, which is a spiritual practice which the Chinese government calls a cult. And these fake pages and profiles had a lot of pro-Trump content but also anti-Chinese government, too. What were they pushing out?”
Snopes is primarily concerned with invalidating The Epoch Times, who it disparages for running content that supports President Trump. “What we saw was an extreme amount of pro-Trump content,” Green said. “Almost exclusively what we were looking at on the BL was the amplification of pro-Trump media… And that content plays well on Facebook.”
Garcia-Navaro noted that “Some people have called this sort of industrial-scale misinformation.”
However, the founding mission of The Epoch Times, founded in 2000, was “in response to communist repression and censorship in China.” The originators were “Chinese-Americans who themselves had fled communism, sought to create an independent media to bring the world uncensored and truthful information.” Part of their early work was in writing about the persecution faced by members of the Falun Gong religious sect, which Snopes additionally stigmatizes in repeating the Wall Street Journal reporting that “Beijing declared Falun Gong an evil cult and launched a brutal crackdown on its practitioners in China,” which Garcia-Navaro then echoed.
Snopes attempts to discredit The Epoch Times by trivializing its founding mission, and by using the Chinese government’s defining of a religious group as a cult, which has been persecuted by that same government, as evidence of wrongdoing by The Epoch Times.
To recap, The Epoch Times was founded to bring light to human rights abuses in China, many of which are undeniable. Because the outlet has reported favourably about the sitting American president, who is well derided in mainstream media, the Facebook investigation into their parent company’s link to a media outlet with improper account practices is now being used to discredit the validity of their content.
The Epoch Times is not free from run-ins with Facebook security. In July, The Epoch Times pages were barred from placing any further ads on the site. The ads The Epoch Times were running were primarily to drive subscribers to their print edition, and they spent a large sum of money doing this. After they were ad-banned, The Epoch Times tried to get clarification from Facebook as to why this had happened. Unable to get a clear answer, The Epoch Times set up additional accounts, and used them to run the subscription ads. The ads were approved. However, because this was a work-around of the ad ban, those accounts were then removed. The Epoch Times is no longer permitted to run ads on Facebook.
The Epoch Times has tried to reach out to Facebook and get an audience as to how to reverse the ad ban. Facebook’s assertion is that “a total ban is so rare, the review so conclusive, and the violations so egregious,” that there is no formal appeals process. Despite Facebook’s assertion that the ban of BL was procedural and not based on content, mainstream media outlets have framed the story that the content was partially to blame. While EMG claims no connection to BL and has provided documentation to clarify, Facebook claims it is still investigating.
The Post Millennial reached out to The Epoch Times publisher, Stephen Gregory, regarding the assertion by mainstream media outlets that “misleading” content is part of the reason EMG us being investigated. Gregory stated that “The Epoch Times is an independent media organization. Which means that our reporting is oftentimes different from other media. We can’t speak to the motives of other media organizations, but we are disappointed by the continued inaccurate reporting about us. EMG’s Facebook pages were not affected by Facebook’s actions against the BL. As stated in our public statements, EMG is not affiliated with the BL. We are also disappointed in Facebook issuing a statement suggesting Epoch Media Group responsibility for BL’s actions without first contacting us to find out if their assumptions about us were accurate. The result was that Facebook has damaged our good name.”