Facebook announced on Wednesday that it removed hundreds of fake accounts associated with four different information operations. Two of the operations were tied to professional public relations or advertising firms, and one of them was linked to former Trump adviser Roger Stone. According to the company, the four establishments spent over $ 3.5 million on advertising.
The network associated with Stone consisted of 50 Facebook pages, 54 accounts and four Instagram pages. It has also been linked to the Proud Boys, a far-right men’s rights group that the social media company banned in 2018 for violating “guidelines against hate organizations and figures”.
According to the publication, members of the network posed as Florida residents and “created their own content to make them appear more popular than they are”. It spent roughly $ 308,000 on ads and bought fake followers from Pakistan and Egypt.
Stone’s own account was banned, but he denied involvement in the network in a statement to the New York Times.
“This extraordinarily active censorship, for which Facebook and Instagram give completely made-up reasons,” he told the newspaper, “is part of a larger effort to censor supporters of the president, Republicans and conservatives on social media platforms.”
While Facebook does not provide all of the data advertised by the Stone-affiliated fake accounts and pages, the 2016 screenshots provided show that the network posted articles from Infowars, Stone’s personal website, and left-wing watchdog Media Matters.
“The Site Administrators and Account Owners have the hacked materials published by Wikileaks prior to the 2016 US election on Florida Local Politics, Roger Stone and its sites, websites, books and media appearances, Florida Land and Water Resources Act , reported in the 2016 primaries and general elections as well as in the Roger Stone trial, “the press release said.
The shutdown reached the whole world and affected three separate networks, centered on Ecuador and Canada, Ukraine and Brazil.
Two other networks that were removed were linked to professional companies and continued the trend of professionalizing disinformation. A Canadian and Ecuador-affiliated public relations firm called Estraterra spent approximately $ 1.38 million on ads on the platform. Another firm, an advertising agency in Ukraine that “was particularly active during the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections,” spent around $ 1.93 million.
The Ukrainian network had previously faced shutdowns due to hate speech and impersonation. It was operated by Postmen DA, an advertising agency that describes itself as “the most effective digital agency”.
Roberto Wohlgemuth, founder and CEO of Estraterra, told BuzzFeed News that Facebook had not informed him of the shutdowns, which, according to the social network, affected “41 Facebook accounts, 77 pages and 56 Instagram accounts”.
“The rise of social media has provided this incredible opportunity to center different voices – those that have historically been marginalized from public debate and conversation. Unfortunately, this announcement from Facebook simply repeats its own capture by the same elite powers,” Wohlgemuth said in an email Statement on BuzzFeed News. “Estraterra will continue to stand up not only for our freedom of expression, but also for our freedom to be silenced.”
Although Wohlgemuth’s company is based in Canada, the network did not target the country, according to the Facebook publication. Instead, it focused on Ecuador, Venezuela, and Chile. Wohlgemuth’s LinkedIn page states that he is a former senior advisor to the Ecuadorian president “in matters of strategic and political communication.”
“The British Newspaper Financial Times calls for an end to the sanctions against Venezuela,” it says in a sample Instagram post published by the company. Swiss Post has six likes.
“It is wrong that there is a new pandemic every year that ends in the 20th of every century,” said another Instagram post attributed to the network that was even less popular with three likes.
Some of the accounts that were removed have been assigned to a network in Brazil aimed at targeting audiences in that country. In this case, sites pretended to be news while spreading criticism of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s political opposition. According to Facebook, this activity was attributed to some employees of the Bolsonaro offices, his two sons and people from the right-wing Social Liberal Party.