Facebook Purged 810 Accounts and Pages for Spam and Profit-Driven Campaigning, Including Large Alternative Media Sites

By Stefan M. Kløvning

Facebook announced on Thursday that they would be removing 559 pages and 251 accounts that “have consistently broken our rules against spam and coordinated inauthentic behavior.” The operation has since been highly criticized for reasons like disproportionately targeting Conservatives and Libertarians and for not having issued a warning before effecting what many have labeled as a “purge.”

Following the coordinated efforts by Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Apple and Spotify to remove Alex Jones from their platforms, and undercover videos by the Veritas Project showing Twitter employees admit to targeting Conservatives in the practice of “shadow-banning”, many have interpreted this new purge just to be another leap towards them being systemically silenced. A poll conducted by Pew in June showed that 72% of Americans thought it was “somewhat likely” or “very likely” that social media platforms censor political viewpoints, with a twenty percentage point deviation between Republicans and Democrats.

In the announcement, Facebook specified what kind of activities were targeted during the purge,

The people behind it create networks of Pages using fake accounts or multiple accounts with the same names. They post clickbait posts on these Pages to drive people to websites that are entirely separate from Facebook and seem legitimate, but are actually ad farms. The people behind the activity also post the same clickbait posts in dozens of Facebook Groups, often hundreds of times in a short period, to drum up traffic for their websites. And they often use their fake accounts to generate fake likes and shares. This artificially inflates engagement for their inauthentic Pages and the posts they share, misleading people about their popularity and improving their ranking in News Feed. This activity goes against what people expect on Facebook, and it violates our policies against spam.

Many people who got their accounts and pages banned turned to Twitter to inform about what had happened, sharing pictures such as these,

These pictures have been pointed out to work against them because they show that single individuals administer a whole myriad of accounts and pages, which they could potentially use to mass-share pictures and articles.

Some of the people banned, however, have said that they were doing so as a result of competitors using the tactic, and that they didn’t know it was against the rules. The publisher of the now-banned left-leaning page “Reasonable People Unite”, Chris Metcalf, for instance, told the Washington Post that “I would gladly abide by Facebook’s terms if I understood what they were. I am a legitimate political activist. I don’t have a clickbait blog. I don’t have a fake news website. And I haven’t been doing anything that all the other pages in this space aren’t doing.” A co-founder of Reverb Press, James Reader, whose site has also been unpublished, claimed that Facebook were “changing the rules as they went,” and, although he professed himself to be a Progressive, accused the site of being unfair to the conservative sites that were taken down. “This is what the First Amendment is all about. It should be a fair, equal playing field, that’s all we ever asked for.” Both of the operators also said that a reason they were using multiple profiles was “in part to avoid what they perceived as an arbitrary crackdown on their organizing by the social network.”

Journalist Tim Pool argued in a recent video that Facebook should have given the relevant people and sites a warning that they had been breaking community guidelines first, to make aware those who did not know that they had been doing so, before banning them from the site with no bargaining power to counter with.

In their announcement, Facebook conceded that “there are legitimate reasons that accounts and Pages coordinate with each other — it’s the bedrock of fundraising campaigns and grassroots organizations.” But the difference, they proclaim, “is that these groups are upfront about who they are, and what they’re up to.” They did not provide examples, however, of where the line goes between sufficient and insufficient information about who they are and what they’re doing, or how that is not clear from their public activities or Facebook’s monitoring thereof.

Washington Post reporters Elizabeth Dwoskin and Tony Romm also identified another problem with the purge:

In short, the question is whether – or to what degree – Facebook should work as a judge of what is and is not “legitimate” political influence on the upcoming mid-term elections in November. Conservatives and Libertarians especially, worry that the worldview of Facebook staff members may affect this judgement, especially as the majority of political donations from Silicon Valley during the 2016 election went to Hillary Clinton, most notably 94% by Alphabet Inc., the parent corporation of Google. Former Facebook workers also told Gizmodo in 2016 that they had routinely suppressed stories about CPAC gatherings, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and other conservative topics from appearing in the “highly-influential” section, a tendency which it’s unlikely they’ve decided to stop with since.

Nicholas Bernabe, the founder of The Anti-Media, a highly popular site which was unpublished both on Facebook and Twitter during the purge, said “Our approach generally is to cover stories and angles that corporate media underreport or misreport and to amplify activist and anti-war voices and stories. All of our content is professionally fact-checked and edited. I can only speculate that these suspensions were a coordinated effort to stifle our message ahead of the coming elections.” Free Thought Project co-founder Jason Bassler and RT American reporter Rachel Blevins also denied Facebook’s allegations of inauthentic behavior.

Twitter has also appeared to be coordinating with Facebook, as many sites and users informing about the Facebook purge have since also been banned there. Administrators of pages such as “Anti-Media” and “The Free Thought Project”, each of which had millions of followers before they were banned, were among people who received a message like this about their ban, saying they had been “suspended for violating the Twitter rules. Specifically for:”, without listing anything afterwards.

Independent journalist John Vibes, a contributor to The Free Thought Project, argued that this was an effort to reclaim the monopoly that cable news had before the advent of the internet.

This signifies a re-consolidation of the media. Cable news media controlled the narrative for most of modern history, but the internet has lowered that barrier to entry and allowed the average person to become the media themselves. This obviously took market share and influence away from the traditional media, and it has allowed for a more diverse public conversation. Now it seems the platforms that have monopolized the industry are favoring mainstream sources and silencing alternative voices. So now, instead of allowing more people to have a voice, these platforms are creating an atmosphere where only powerful media organizations are welcome, just as we had on cable news.

People think that we are just providing an activist spin on the news, but they don’t see the families struggling to have their voice heard. For example, when someone is shot by police, mainstream media sources often just republish the press release from the police department, without presenting the victim’s side of the story. We give the victims and their families a voice, which is essential to keep power in check. This also goes for bigger issues like foreign policy as well; multiple full-scale invasions of Syria have been prevented because of information that the alternative media made viral.