Oct 8, 2020 - Technology

Facebook removes inauthentic campaign linked to Turning Point USA

Charlie Kirk, founder and executive director of Turning Point USA, speaks at the NRA-ILA Leadership Forum on May 8, 2018. Photo: Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

Facebook said Thursday that it took down a coordinated inauthentic behavior campaign that was being run by Rally Forge LLC, a U.S. marketing firm working on behalf of pro-Trump student organization Turning Point USA and Inclusive Conservation Group, an organization that appeared to be focused on trophy hunting in Africa.

Why it matters: It's the most recent example of Facebook taking action on a group linked to fringe conservatives or conservative ideology for spreading misinformation or attempting to persuade public debate with fake accounts.

  • The company said Wednesday that it would be banning all accounts, groups and pages related to QAnon, the fringe far-right conspiracy, from its platforms.
  • In June, it removed over 200 accounts linked to white supremacy groups.

Details: The company said that the people behind both operations used fake accounts, a large portion of which had been automatically removed by its system.

  • The groups focused on using fake personas to comment on news stories posted by news outlets like the Washington Post, Fox News, MSNBC, CNN and the New York Times to influence debate.
  • Facebook said it discovered this network after public reporting about some elements of the activity by the Washington Post. It said it worked with the Post to crack down on the campaign.
  • Facebook said the activity linked to Turning Points USA was focused on politics and the election. The accounts mostly supported President Trump and attacked Joe Biden using fake conservative personas. The operation did create some left-leaning personas as well.

Between the lines: Many of the accounts were created in 2018 ahead of the midterm elections, and then went dormant until this past June, said Nathaniel Gleicher, the company's head of cybersecurity policy.

  • When they reappeared, they were more focused on using “thinly veiled personas,” or names with slight variations of the names of the people behind them, than spreading misinformation through fake accounts, Gleicher said. This was likely done in order to better avoid detection by automated systems.
  • This tactic of relying on more seemingly human behavior to trick people, especially the media, has become more common in recent months, as bad actors try to figure out how to manipulate public debate without getting caught.

By the numbers: Facebook said it removed 2​00 Facebook accounts, 55 pages and 76 Instagram accounts related to the operation.

  • It said that collectively about 373,000 people followed one or more of the pages it removed, and that around 22,000 people followed one or more of the removed Instagram accounts.
  • The company noted that Rally Forge has, in total, spent $973,000 on ads on Facebook and Instagram. A small portion of that ad spend was linked to the removed operation. But much of it otherwise didn't violate Facebook's rules.
  • The company is now completely banned, and will never be able to buy advertising or post on behalf of any of its clients or itself on the platform again.

Be smart: Turning Point USA is led by Charlie Kirk, a conservative activist and Trump supporter who spoke at the Republican National Convention.

  • Kirk has previously supported unproven claims of conservative bias by social media platforms.
  • At the convention in August, he said: "The American way of life means you speak your mind without retribution, without being kicked off social media by a self-righteous censor in Silicon Valley."

The big picture: It's the latest example of Facebook taking action on a domestic election influence campaign, in which actors operate from within a country to try to sway public debate.

  • Facebook said that more than half of the 10 campaigns it's removed in September and in October so far targeted domestic audiences in their countries.
  • The company also said Thursday that it took down a domestic-focused coordinated inauthentic behavior campaign in Myanmar linked to to members of the military.
  • To date, Facebook has taken down seven campaigns in Myanmar.
Go deeper