Facebook took down more than 600 accounts tied to the pro-Trump conspiracy website The Epoch Times for using identities created by artificial intelligence to push stories about a variety of topics including impeachment and elections.
The network was called “The BL” and was run by Vietnamese users posing as Americans, using fake photos generated by algorithms to simulate real identities. The Epoch Media group, which pushes a variety of pro-Trump conspiracy theories, spent $9.5 million on ads to spread content through the now-suspended pages and groups.
“What’s new here is that this is purportedly a U.S.-based media company leveraging foreign actors posing as Americans to push political content. We’ve seen it a lot with state actors in the past,” Facebook’s head of security policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, said in an interview.
The network had over 55 million followers on Facebook, almost double the following of Kim Kardashian West.
The accounts pushed anti-impeachment and pro-Trump messages while otherwise posing as everyday Americans. Sometimes the accounts featured obvious errors. One moderator of a popular “BL” page was named “Ellen Dancey,” but featured an AI-generated face of a man. Dancey’s sole post to his profile page read “Hello, wellcom to my face book.”
Gleicher said using the AI-generated faces was more likely to get the bad actors caught than to help mask their identities.
“We detected these accounts because they were engaged in fake behavior. Using AI generated profiles as a way to make themselves look more real doesn’t actually help them,” Gleicher said, adding the fake profiles were more likely to trip automatic sensors of fake accounts. “The biggest takeaway here is the egregiousness of the network in using fake identities.”
Facebook said its investigation linked BL to Epoch Media Group "and individuals in Vietnam working on its behalf."
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Stephen Gregory, publisher of the U.S. editions of The Epoch Times, said in a statement that Epoch Media Group has no connection to BL, noting that it is a part of Epoch Times Vietnam.
"The BL was founded by a former employee, and employs some of our former employees. However, that some of our former employees work for BL is not evidence of any connection between the two organizations," Gregory wrote. He called on Facebook to end what he called “its unjustified ban” on Epoch Media Group’s ads.
The network of fake pages included 89 pages, 156 groups and 72 Instagram accounts. Epoch Media Group, which runs The Epoch Times, is run by practitioners of Falun Gong, who believe the world is soon headed for a judgment day, where all those labeled as Communists will be sent to hell. One former Epoch Times editor told NBC News in August that practitioners “believe that Trump was sent by heaven to destroy the Communist Party.”
The Epoch Times has developed advocates in and around the Trump administration. President Donald Trump’s official Facebook page has posted their stories at least a half-dozen times this year. Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, conducted a 40-minute interview in Trump Tower with The Epoch Times in May.
The Epoch Times’ official Facebook pages are still active and “verified” on Facebook, with more than 10 million combined followers. The Epoch Times remains one of the largest political ad spenders on YouTube, which is owned by Google.
The fact-checking site Snopes first revealed The BL’s network in October. Facebook did not credit Snopes for its work in a press release announcing the takedown.
“Every piece of open source reporting is valuable,” Gleicher told NBC News. “We’ve got to take the time to find the whole network.”
Snopes left Facebook’s fact-checking program in February. Snopes’ vice president of operations, Vinny Green, said at the time that “it doesn’t seem like we’re striving to make third-party fact-checking more practical for publishers — it seems like we’re striving to make it easier for Facebook.”
Green told NBC News that Snopes alerted Facebook to the BL’s network several times since October, but did not receive a response.
"Facebook continues it efforts to gaslight the media and its users into thinking it's serious about addressing inauthenticity and fraud on its platform,” Green said. “We first reported on this network in October, and continue to do so throughout the remainder of the year at great expense to our organization.”
“The idea that Snopes could go from trusted partner to persona non grata, and have our emails ignored hundreds of times while we report troubling behavior on their platform is abhorrent and is a demonstration of their utter contempt for the independent press,” Green said.
UPDATE (Dec. 21, 2019, 2:07 p.m. ET): This article has been updated with a response from the publisher of The Epoch Times.
Ben Collins covers disinformation, extremism and the internet for NBC News.