By Dustin Volz 

Facebook Inc. said it removed a network of accounts with links to a U.S. conservative political youth group for posing as fake users to praise President Trump and criticize his Democratic rival, Joe Biden.

The social-media giant's move is among a number of steps it has taken in recent weeks to curb misinformation on the platform and one of its most high-profile actions against a domestic political operator. It reflects growing concern, with Americans already casting ballots in the coming election, about the potential reach of political disinformation that emanates from domestic sources, rather than foreign ones.

The company said Thursday it had removed 200 Facebook accounts, 55 Facebook pages and 76 Instagram accounts that were run by Rally Forge, a U.S. marketing firm, for violating rules against "coordinated inauthentic behavior." Rally Forge, which Facebook said is now banned permanently, was working on behalf of two clients, including Turning Point USA, a Phoenix-based conservative youth organization.

Turning Point USA was founded by Charlie Kirk, a prominent conservative activist and staunch Trump supporter who spoke at the Republican National Convention in August.

The social-media campaign, which dated back to 2018 and saw resurgent activity in June of this year, included using fake accounts that posed as politically conservative people in the U.S. to comment on content shared by others, Facebook said. In 2018 the operation also included posing as left-leaning individuals, the company said.

About 373,000 accounts followed one or more of the Facebook pages and 22,000 followed one or more of the Instagram accounts, and Rally Forge spent $973,000 on Facebook and Instagram ads connected to both authentic and inauthentic accounts that were removed, Facebook said.

The topics of focus included the presidential race, the 2018 midterm elections and the coronavirus. Facebook identified the operation as posting frequent recent comments on pages run by major media outlets, including the New York Times, the Washington Post and Fox News.

Facebook said the campaign deployed thinly veiled personas in which the account names used were slight variations of the real names of individuals operating them.

Turning Point USA said the activity at issue was a project for Turning Point Action, an affiliated organization that has greater freedoms concerning political advocacy and lobbying.

"Turning Point Action works hard to operate within social platforms' [terms of service] on all of its projects and communications and we hope to work closely with FB to rectify any misunderstanding," the group said in a statement Thursday.

Rally Forge didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Facebook took action following a Washington Post article last month reporting that Turning Point Action was paying teenagers to post spam-like content on social media in a manner that some experts likened to a domestic troll farm.

"The activity Facebook disclosed today was by Americans targeted at Americans," said Alex Stamos, director of Stanford University's Internet Observatory. "It seems clear that for a certain set of professional political operator, manipulating social media has become a standard product offering."

The company took down 46 accounts in August that were operated by a U.S. communications firm Facebook said was engaged in coordinated inauthentic activity targeting Venezuela, Mexico and Bolivia.

Because Facebook has become good at spotting profile photos that are reused from the internet, this group instead chose images generated using artificial intelligence to try to evade detection, said Mr. Stamos, Facebook's former chief security officer. This kind of tactic is becoming standard in such operations and was also used by a Russian-linked campaign that Facebook disrupted last month, he said.

"It used to require no technical skills at all to run a troll farm," Mr. Stamos said, but now they are becoming more critical for such efforts to succeed.

Rally Forge also appeared to be spreading inauthentic comments about trophy- or sport hunting on behalf of its other client, Inclusive Conservation Group, an environmental organization, Facebook said. While Rally Forge's work focused primarily on U.S. audiences, some content was aimed at Kenya and Botswana.

Inclusive Conservation Group didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Facebook banned Rally Forge because the tech giant found clear evidence that the group's behavior violated its platforms' terms of service, Nathaniel Gliecher, Facebook's head of cybersecurity policy, said on a press call Thursday. Though Turning Point USA held some on-platform links to the inauthentic campaign, Mr. Gleicher indicated Facebook didn't have sufficient evidence to penalize the conservative group as well, though he said the investigation was continuing.

"One of the things we have learned is that we have to take action based on evidence we see on our platform," Mr. Gleicher said. "Here we see clear evidence that Rally Forge is engaged on this, and we've taken action on that behavior."

--Robert McMillan contributed to this article.

Write to Dustin Volz at dustin.volz@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 08, 2020 13:37 ET (17:37 GMT)

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