POLITICS
08/02/2018 01:14 pm ET Updated Aug 02, 2018

How Facebook Decided Anti-Racist Activists Were Part Of A Foreign Influence Operation

Days before neo-Nazis are scheduled to rally in Washington, Facebook shut down the main opposition event.
A snapshot of the event page Facebook.
Atlantic Council DFR Lab
A snapshot of the event page Facebook.

WASHINGTON — Facebook removed 32 pages and accounts it said exhibited “inauthentic behavior” similar to that of the Russian propaganda operation running during the 2016 election on Tuesday. As a side effect of this action, Facebook also deleted a real event page organized by real Americans with real political concerns.

The deleted event page, called “No Unite the Right 2 - DC,” was a protest organized by a collection of anti-fascist, anti-racist, socialist and anarchist groups. The event page was the main public tool activists used to organize a protest against an upcoming white supremacist rally in Washington D.C. on Aug. 12, the anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where an alleged white supremacist rammed his car into a group of protesters, killing one woman.

The No Unite the Right 2 - DC event page was created by a Facebook page called “Resisters,” before a coalition of local activists called Shut It Down D.C. took over planning for the event. According to Facebook, the Resisters page exhibited behavior similar to Russian-operated social media accounts that worked to sway public opinion during the 2016 election. And when the tech company deleted the Resisters page on Tuesday, it also took down the anti-Unite Right event page.

The collateral damage of Facebook’s attempt to block foreign interference in the aftermath of the 2016 election exposes the challenge the company faces when it seeks to stamp out fake accounts taking advantage of actual activism. It also highlights the problems that activists face in relying on Facebook, the largest online gathering place of people in the world, for political organizing as the tech giant seeks to impose more control over user activity.

The activists hosting the counterprotest say they were blindsided by Facebook removing their event page, which they said was the culmination of hundreds of hours of online and on-the-ground organizing. They are also critical of Facebook’s decision to announce the removal of the event page in a telephone press conference, which resulted in top media outlets characterizing the anti-racist protest as a foreign “fake influence campaign.” And now, a week-and-a-half before neo-Nazis are expected to rally in D.C., anti-racist activists are spending their time explaining that they are not Russian bots and that their political stance against white supremacy is not Russian agitprop.

“The really harmful part of it is the slander of it,” Andrew Batcher, an organizer with Shut It Down D.C., the umbrella group organizing the protest, said. “The idea that people are thinking that this real legitimate protest is being organized by Russian bots, that’s an incredibly irresponsible story to be telling.”

The evidence Facebook provided for removing the event page is thin. According to the tech company, Resisters, the administrator that created the event, appeared to be an inauthentic account, Facebook said. At some point, an account linked to the Internet Research Agency, the Russian troll farm named in a recent indictment related to the 2016 election meddling, was a co-administrator of the Resisters page for about seven minutes, according to Facebook. The tech company said this occurred “back some time ago,” but did not provide a specific date.

Some of the Facebook users whose accounts or pages were taken down on Tuesday used VPNs, private internet networks and internet phone services “to hide their identity,” Facebook officials told reporters. These practices are commonly used by activists, who are increasingly at risk of being doxxed by white supremacists or even targeted by the government.

In addition to the Resisters, there were five other legitimate co-hosts listed on the “No Unite The Right 2- DC” event page, Facebook officials acknowledged. But because the company was concerned about Resisters, it opted to wipe out the entire event.

The Resisters page was created on March, 21 2017, according to the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. It described itself as: “Online and offline feminist activism against fascism. Widespread public education and direct action, amplifying the voices from targeted communities.” The page included linguistic errors that are characteristic of native Russian-speakers and pushed divisive content in a way that resembled other Russian operations, the Atlantic Council’s DFR lab wrote. By teaming up with real activists, Resisters “infiltrated the genuine protest community,” DFR lab continued.

After Facebook removed the Resisters page and the anti-Unite the Right 2 event page, D.C.-based organizer Brendan Orsinger came forward on Twitter as one of the administrators of the now-defunct Resisters page. Orsinger, who is known to many in the D.C. activism community, said someone from the Resisters page reached out to him in January when he was organizing a rally protesting President Donald Trump’s State of the Union and suggested they coordinate efforts. After the State of the Union, Orsinger was asked to become an administrator on the Resisters page. The page had about 20,000 followers; Orsinger figured it would help boost his activism efforts so he accepted the offer, he wrote.

Orsinger now thinks that one of the accounts he communicated with over the past seven months, a woman named Mary, could be an inauthentic account. But many of the people behind the Resisters page were legitimate activists, he said. And although Resisters created the anti-Unite the Right event page, locals have led the organizing effort, several D.C.-based activists told HuffPost. A coalition effort called Shut It Down D.C. includes Black Lives Matter D.C., the D.C. Antifascist Collective, D.C. Industrial Workers of the World, Smash Racism D.C., the Socialist Party of D.C. and others.

“We are legitimate community members dealing with legitimate problems of neo-Nazis in our community,” Dylan Petrohilos, one of the event administrators, said in an interview. “Facebook is using us as a pawn to try to show Republicans that they’re not biased against the right.”

D.C.-based organizers are now in the difficult position of trying to prove a negative: that they are not part of a Russian government-backed influence campaign. And they say Facebook’s handling of the situation is to blame. According to event organizers, the tech giant first reached out on Monday night around 9 p.m. with an innocuous-sounding email.

“I’m reaching out to set up time to discuss an event you are listed as a host of on Facebook,” a political outreach employee at Facebook wrote in an email to event administrators.  

A screenshot of an email Facebook sent to activists.
HuffPost
A screenshot of an email Facebook sent to activists.

The email did not indicate that Facebook suspected the event of being tied to a Russian sock-puppet account or that it had plans to delete the event page. Facebook sent a similarly-worded email shortly after the event page was taken down.

Several activists who saw the email said it looked like spam or a spear phishing attempt. “It would have been cool for Facebook to actually talk to us and figure out what’s going on. Not shut the page down and send this sketchy email,” Batcher, the Shut It Down organizer, said.

At least one organizer received a longer email from Facebook, explaining that the event page was removed because it was created by “someone establishing an inauthentic account that has been associated with coordinated inauthentic behavior.” In that longer email, Facebook offered to help organizers promote a new event page.

The new event page, called “Hate Not Welcome: No Unite The Right 2” already has more than 1,500 Facebook users listed as attending or interested in attending. But organizers say the damage has been done. By Tuesday night, several media outlets had run stories depicting the anti-Unite the Right protesters as pawns of a Russian influence operation.

“Instead of continuing to organize our protest, we’re fielding a bunch of press calls about, ‘So, are you Russia?’” Petrohilos said.

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