#TrollTracker: Russian Traces in Facebook Takedown
Part Two — Influence operation sought to translate online engagement to real world action
On July 31, Facebook announced the removal of around 32 pages and accounts on its platform for coordinated and inauthentic behavior.
Facebook first shared eight pages with @DFRLab 24 hours before the takedown, and our initial findings were published within that timeframe.
The pattern of behavior by the accounts and on the pages in question make one thing abundantly clear: they sought to promote divisions and set Americans against one another. Their approach, tactics, language, and content were, in some instances, very similar to accounts run by the Russian “troll farm” or Internet Research Agency between 2014 and 2017.
The malign influence operation showed increasing sophistication. Three follow-up aspects to our initial findings include converting online engagement to real world action, shifting tactics to cover tracks, and crossover posting of content from bad actors on different platforms or accounts.
@DFRLab intends to make every aspect of our research broadly available. The effort is part of our #ElectionWatch work and a broader initiative to provide independent and credible research about the role of social media in elections, as well as democracy more generally.
This post investigates how the set of pages Facebook took down on July 31 had a tailored focus on building a mostly static online audience then translating it kinetic political activity in the United States.
According to Facebook, the eight pages and seventeen accounts taken down boasted thousands of posts and hundreds of thousands of followers. The most prolific and noteworthy pages was that of “Resisters”, which created 27 event pages between March 2017 and July 2018.
A number of the event pages led to protests that had hundreds of actual attendees; however, these 27 events had mixed outcomes regarding how significant Resisters was in influencing turnout when compared to legitimate social activists organizing on the same event pages.
The demonstrations that were held in accordance with the event pages created by the anonymous administrators of the “Resisters” group were legitimate and important expressions of political activity. The Americans who participated in these protests and marches, along with all of the legitimate social activist groups who assisted in logistical organization, were not doing so with any awareness of the nature of the “Resisters” page. The fact that these anonymous administrators were acting in bad faith does not diminish or change these expressions of political activism.
False information and online polarization are on the rise in the United States. While countless factors are driving both organically among Americans, covert influence campaigns, some steered from abroad, are using disinformation to drive Americans further apart, and weaken the trust in the institutions on which democracy stands.
27 Events Over a Year
@DFRLab captured much of the activity of Resisters, along with its event pages, before Facebook removed the pages. A list of the 27 event pages between May 23, 2017 and June 27, 2018, plus two future events, are included below. The number of guests for each event is the sum of users who indicated that they were either “attending” or “interested” in the event, along with those who were invited but did not respond; however, only a fraction of these users actually attended the events.
For example, the “Stop Transgender Military Ban” event on July 29 in Washington, DC boasted 3,963 “guests”. A far smaller crowd actually made it to the event.
Some of these events turned into real, successful demonstrations on the street. Others did not.
Broadly, it was evident that the successful events were those with real activists who took charge on logistical issues and participant recruiting. The unsuccessful events were often those that failed to gain traction among local social activists and organizations. The anonymous administrators behind the Resisters page would provide some planning for the events, but usually worked from the sidelines as real, local activists did the majority of work in staging marches and protests.
All of the organized events were anti-Trump in some way, mostly calling for relatively tame demonstrations in response to specific actions from the Trump administration, such as a December 21 protest against the GOP tax legislation or a September 9 demonstration in support of DACA.
These events achieved mixed success — some drew hundreds of guests, while some never even took place. Others did not turn out so well.
What made some of these events successes, and others flops?
Unsuccessful Events: No local traction, with mysterious excuses
A protest scheduled for September 30, 2017 at Trump Tower where participants would kneel, in support of the activism by Colin Kaepernick, was a flop. Even though the Facebook event page noted that there were nearly 3,000 guests, only a handful showed up due to poor organization and little grassroots traction. The anonymous Resisters administrators noted that its “team” could not attend at the last minute, which led to further confusion among participants.
At another event, the Resisters “DC coordinator” was mysteriously sick right before the protest, which put more responsibility on local activists.
Often, the Resisters page showed a lack of awareness around how to successfully organize a demonstration. For example, a demonstration was planned for the evening of New Year’s Day on Times Square against President Trump firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The time and place of the demonstration was, to put it mildly, not conducive for drawing a large protest crowd.
Successful Events: Started by Resisters, organized by locals
Almost universally, events that actually took place and drew a notable number of participants were those in which local activists “took over” the event from Resisters and used their own resources to stage a demonstration.
A July 29, 2017, protest against a ban on transgendered people in the military, for example, was quite successful after the Trans Women of Color Collective took over the event.
Early in the planning for the event, Resisters relied on locals to do the heavy lifting for the protest, such as asking others to reach out to DC-area groups — despite the fact that Resisters was ostensibly based in the same city.
Eventually, the Trans Women of Color Collective took charge with this demonstration, after being made a “co-host” on the event page. This organization has a proven track record of raising funds for and providing direct assistance to trans women of color in the DC area. The eventual demonstration that took place in front of the White House did so because of their expertise and organizational efforts. Local activists spoke at the event, a successful fundraiser was organized for the Collective, and an ASL translator was even present for deaf participants.
A demonstration likely would have been held by local LGBTQ activists regardless of Resisters, but in this case, the activists worked off of an event page originally created by what Facebook deemed an “inauthentic page”.
A similar set of circumstances led to a successful protest in Springfield, Missouri, coinciding with a Trump visit. Soon after news broke that President Trump would visit Springfield, Resisters created an event page for a protest at an undetermined time and place.
The event picked up momentum due to the fact that actual local activist groups started to post on the event page with information about the upcoming protest. Notably, a St. Louis Indivisible Facebook group — a spin-off of the progressive social organization that had a number of successful local and regional political actions since the 2016 election — participated in the group, along with other local and regional activist organizations.
Eventually, this Indivisible Facebook group, along with a number of other legitimate Missouri-based activist organizations, became “co-hosts” along with Resisters.
Simultaneous with the Resisters event page was a another protest page, for “The People’s Protest”, organized by a coalition of legitimate local and regional social activist organizations. Both event pages had, more or less, the same protest plans.
However, the Emerging Church and the others who organized this group clearly did their due diligence in working with trusted and verified local organizers, groups, and unions, rather than the anonymous Resisters group.
However, the Resisters event page had almost as many participants and guests (4,376 guests — combining “invited”, “going”, and “interested” RSVPs) as the legitimate organizers (5,932 guests). When the actual protest took place, the Resisters group simply replicated messages that others were already sending, providing no original logistical or organizational support.
While this protest would have happened regardless of Resisters, the fact that their event page drew almost as many participants as a legitimate local group is concerning.
The local activists and organizations who worked off of the Resisters event pages were not aware of the “hosts” being bad actors. In many cases, the demonstrations that eventually manifested themselves on American streets very likely would have taken place with or without Facebook event pages — after all, while Facebook is useful for mobilizing grassroots political work, it is only one vehicle. Some of the most significant social activism is done entirely offline.
Questions linger over how this issue, which was also seen with the protest regarding the trans military ban, should be handled by social media giants — is an event that was started by an “inauthentic page” or accounts invalid, even if the bulk of the organizing is done by legitimate organizations? This problem came to a head after an event page started by Resisters aimed to counter the D.C. Unite the Right protest was deleted, drawing the ire of the real-life organizers working on the event.
Ultimately, the anonymous administrators of the Resisters page did more harm than good to the activists working in Missouri, New York City, and Washington, DC. These groups and individuals acted in good faith when they saw a relatively large Facebook group — with over 20,000 members when it was shuttered by Facebook — looking to organizing demonstrations against the actions of the Trump administration. Unfortunately, Resisters did not act operate the same good faith.
Aric Toler is the lead digital researcher for Eurasia at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
DISCLOSURE: @DFRLab announced that we are partnering with Facebook to expand our #ElectionWatch program to identify, expose, and explain disinformation during elections around the world.
The effort is part of a broader initiative to provide independent and credible research about the role of social media in elections, as well as democracy more generally.
For more information click here.