Facebook removed hundreds of accounts on Thursday from a foreign troll farm posing as African-Americans in support of Donald Trump and QAnon supporters. It also removed hundreds of fake accounts linked to conservative media outlet The Epoch Times that pushed pro-Trump conspiracy theories about coronavirus and protests in the U.S.
Facebook took down the accounts as part of its enforcement against coordinated inauthentic behavior, which is the use of fake accounts to inflate the reach of content or products on social media.
The foreign pro-Trump troll farm was based in Romania and pushed content on Instagram under names like “BlackPeopleVoteForTrump” and on Facebook under “We Love Our President.”
Troll farms — groups of people that work together to manipulate internet discourse with fake accounts — are often outsourced and purchased by foreign governments or businesses to push specific political talking points. Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook's head of security policy, said the troll farm’s motivations were unclear, but they didn’t see “clear evidence of financial motivation” or “clear links to known commercial actors in this space.”
Facebook stressed that the takedowns were based on “behavior, not content,” like breaking rules against creating fake accounts to boost engagement on some pieces of content.
Researchers at the Atlantic Council found that many of the troll farm's posts came from a persona called "David Adrian," which used a stolen profile photo and claimed to be living in both Romania and Montana. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have since removed multiple accounts for the David Adrian persona.
A separate troll operation, tied to pro-Trump media organization Epoch Media Group, featured 303 Facebook accounts, 181 pages, 44 Facebook groups and 31 Instagram accounts, which were followed by more than 2 million people across both services. Epoch Media Group is the parent company of the newspaper The Epoch Times. The accounts were tied to a digital media outlet called TruthMedia, which Facebook says it has banned from its services.
The accounts posted about “ongoing U.S. protests and conspiracy theories about who is behind them,” Gleicher said. Some accounts pushed health misinformation about COVID-19, which led to their ban from their services before this month’s takedown.
Stephen Gregory, publisher of The Epoch Times' english-language editions, denied that the company was associated with TruthMedia.
"The Epoch Times and Epoch Media Group are not in any way linked or related with 'Truth Media,' nor do we have any involvement in any operation of 'Truth Media,'" he said in an email.
The same network appears to have created a still-active White House petition to “start calling the novel coronavirus the CCP virus,” according to an investigation from Graphika, which tracks disinformation on social media.
Facebook has twice taken action against Epoch Times-related content, most recently for its use of AI-generated, deepfake-style profile pictures on fake accounts that pushed Epoch Times stories and talking points. Gleicher said that the news Epoch Media Group-related fake accounts primarily used stock photos and not AI-generated photos for profile pictures.
Facebook banned The Epoch Times from advertising on its platform last year after it purchased ads under account names like “Honest Paper” and “Pure Honest Journalism” to get around the social network’s ad review systems. At the time, The Epoch Times was the largest buyer of pro-Trump ads on Facebook outside of the Trump campaign.
An example of the new Epoch Media-related takedown provided by Facebook showed an account called “Truth14” pushing a meme about a baseball player who didn’t kneel during the national anthem, part of the accounts’ strategy to push pro-Trump culture war messaging.“This guy is going to need a lot of support because the mob is coming for him and his family,” the post reads. “‘MLB’ is ‘BLM’ spelled backwards.”
CORRECTION (Aug 6, 2020, 3:40 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated how many accounts connected to The Epoch Times were removed by Facebook. It was about 300 accounts, not thousands.