Facebook has suspended numerous pages linked to former Trump aide Roger Stone, as well as a network of accounts associated with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, in separate moves to address disinformation and fake accounts on the platform.
The company on Tuesday withdrew 50 personal and professional pages connected to Stone and his associates, including a prominent supporter of the right-wing group Proud Boys in Stone’s home state of Florida, saying they had used fake accounts and followers to promote the books and publications of Stone.
Facebook moved against Stone the same day that it removed accounts linked to Bolsonaro’s family employees, which he says were used to spread divisive political messages, as well as two other networks connected to national political operations in Ecuador and Ukraine.
The company said that despite efforts to hide who was behind the activity, it had found links with the staff of two Brazilian lawmakers, as well as with the president and his children, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro and Senator Flávio Bolsonaro.
Facebook’s accusations add to a mounting political crisis in Brazil, where Bolsonaro’s sons and supporters have been accused of running a coordinated online campaign to smear opponents of the president.
Researchers at the Atlantic Council Digital Forensic Investigation Laboratory, who spent a week analyzing the activity identified by Facebook, said they had found five current and former political employees who registered and operated the accounts. Some of those accounts posed as false Brazilians and the media to spread “hyperpartisan views” that support Bolsonaro and attack his critics, researcher Luiza Bandeira said. Her goals included opposition lawmakers, former ministers, and members of Brazil’s supreme court.
More recently, the accounts amplified Bolsonaro’s claims that the risks of the coronavirus pandemic are exaggerated. The disease has killed more than 66,000 people in Brazil and Bolsonaro himself tested positive this week.
“We have known for a long time that when people disagree with Bolsonaro, they are attacked by this machine that uses online information to mock and discredit them,” Bandeira said.
Nathaniel Gleicher, head of Facebook’s cybersecurity policy, said there was no evidence that the politicians themselves had operated the accounts. “What we can prove is that employees at those offices engage in our platforms in this type of behavior.”
Gleicher also said that, in Stone’s case, the retreats were intended to show that the commitment to artificially inflate the political impact would stop, no matter how well the practitioners connected.
“It doesn’t matter what they say, and it doesn’t matter who they are,” Gleicher told Reuters before the announcement. “We hope to see more political actors cross this line and use coordinated inauthentic behavior to try to influence public debate.”
Facebook officials said they removed Stone’s personal Facebook and Instagram pages and his Stone Cold Truth Facebook page, which had 141,000 followers. A total of 54 Facebook accounts and 50 pages were removed for misconduct, including creating fake accounts. Accounts spent more than $ 300,000 on advertising in recent years, Facebook said.
Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, received advance information on the actions, authorities said.
The withdrawals risk further angering Trump and other conservatives who accuse Facebook of suppressing right-wing voices. Last month, Facebook removed a Trump re-election announcement that featured a Nazi symbol and promised to guide users to the facts about the vote when Trump, or anyone else, brings it up.
Facebook is also under pressure from civil rights advocates and allied groups, and hundreds of advertisers have joined a boycott demanding that the company crack down on hateful and divisive messages.
Stone was convicted last year of witness tampering and lying to Congress while investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. He is due to appear in prison next week. He did not immediately reply to an email seeking comment.
In search warrant documents released this April, the FBI said a Stone aide told interviewers in 2018 “that he bought a couple of hundred fake Facebook accounts as part of this job.”
Facebook said its investigation was influenced by April search documents. But the company said its coordinated Inauthentic Behavior Protection Unit had already been reviewing Stone’s pages after a referral from a separate Facebook team overseeing dangerous organizations, which was tracking the Proud Boys.
Ben Nimmo, a disinformation specialist at Graphika, said the Stone network had been more active in 2016 and 2017, among other things promoting stories about Democratic emails released by WikiLeaks as part of the Russian interference effort.
Many of the accounts were later removed, and in recent weeks have primarily reflected Stone’s quest to receive a pardon from Trump for his crimes, according to Nimmo.
“The unauthentic accounts amplified several of Stone’s assets, such as its page, or advertised one of its books,” said Nimmo.