Facebook took down four networks that engaged in misinformation in the US, Brazil, Ukraine, and Latin and Central Americas, including a network linked to Trump aide Roger Stone and another linked to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Except for the network that targeted people in Latin and Central Americas, all the other three networks targeted domestic audiences. Two of the four networks used advertising/PR firms, while the American and Brazilian networks were linked to people associated with political figures.
This is not the first time that Facebook has named advertising/PR firms behind such networks; in February, the platform had removed a network of 37 Facebook accounts, 32 Pages, 11 Groups and 42 Instagram accounts in India and linked it to aRep Global, an Indian digital marketing firm, whose digital presence has since then completely vanished. Similary, Facebook linked another such network in Egypt to two Egyptian marketing firms — New Waves and Flexel — that targeted the Middle East and North Africa.
1. The Roger Stone Network of Disinformation (USA)
Perpetrators: Roger Stone and his associates. Some of the Pages they managed had links to Proud Boys, a white supremacist hate group that was banned in 2018. This network was most active between 2015 and 2017. Since then, most of these accounts have been dormant while some were permanently deleted by users.
Why the delay? Facebook says that it identified the full scope of this network after the public release of search warrants related to the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Targets and modus operandi: The perpetrators used fake accounts to masquerade as Florida residents, and posted and commented on their content to make it appear more popular. Some pages acquired followers from Pakistan and Egypt to artificially boost their popularity.
What they posted about: Florida politics, Roger Stone and his trial, Pages, websites, books and media appearances, materials released by WikiLeaks ahead of the US 2016 election, and a Florida land and water resources bill.
Scope: 54 Facebook accounts, 50 Pages (with 260,000 followers), 4 Instagram accounts (with 61,500 followers)
2. Network linked to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro
Perpetrators: Linked to the Social Liberal Party, the party that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro left in 2019, and to employees in his office, his sons Flavio and Eduardo’s offices, and in the offices of other SLP politicians.
Targets and modus operandi: They targeted domestic audiences by impersonating news outlets, using duplicate and fake accounts, posing as reporters.
What they posted about: Local news and events including domestic politics and elections, political memes, criticism of the political opposition, media organisations and journalists, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Some content had already been taken down for hate speech and violating other Facebook Community Standards.
Scope: 35 Facebook accounts, 14 Pages (with 883,000 followers), 1 Group (350 members), 38 Instagram accounts (with 917,000 followers)
Advertising: <US$1,500 (paid in Brazilian reais)
3. Targeting El Salvador, Argentine, Uruguay, Venezuela, Ecuador and Chile
Perpetrators: Political consultants and former government employees in Ecuador, and Estraterra, a Canada-based PR firm. Facebook has now banned Estraterra.
Targets and modus operandi: They used fake accounts to pose as locals in countries they targeted, drove people to non-Facebook sites, and masqueraded as independent news organisations. They created duplicate accounts under their own name. This network was active on other platforms as well and activated around civic events such as elections.
What they posted about: Domestic news in the target countries about politics, activism, political candidates, elections, Venezuelan government, both support and criticism of the President of Ecuador, political parties in the region including Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front in El Salvador, Peronist party in Argentina, and the Progressive party in Chile.
Scope: 41 Facebook accounts, 77 Pages (with 274,000 followers), 56 Instagram accounts (with 78,000 followers)
Advertising: US$1.38 million (primarily paid in USD)
Perpetrators: Postmen DA, an advertising agency in Ukraine
Targets and modus operandi: Domestic audiences. They used fake accounts to create fictitious personas and some accounts had already been removed for hate speech and impersonation. The network was particularly active during the 1029 Ukrainian presidential and parliamentary elections. Some accounts had undergone significant name changes over time.
What they posted about: Political memes, satire and other content including about Crimea, NATO, economic policies in Ukraine, domestic politics, elections, criticism and support of various candidates, including Volodymyr Zelensky, Yulia Tymoshenko, and Petro Poroshenko
Scope: 72 Facebook accounts, 35 Pages (with 766,000 followers), 13 Instagram accounts (with 3,800 followers)
Advertising: US$1.93 million (primarily paid in USD)