Facebook has suspended numerous pages linked to the longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone as well as a network of accounts associated with Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, in separate moves to tackle disinformation and fake accounts on the platform.
The company on Tuesday took down 50 personal and professional pages connected to Stone and his associates, including a prominent supporter of the rightwing Proud Boys group in Stone’s home state of Florida, saying they had used fake accounts and followers to promote Stone’s books and posts.
Facebook moved against Stone on the same day it took down accounts tied to employees of Bolsonaro’s family, which it says were used to spread divisive political messages, as well as two other networks connected to domestic political operations in Ecuador and Ukraine.
The company said that despite efforts to disguise who was behind the activity, it had found links to the staff of two Brazilian lawmakers, as well as the president and his sons, the congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro and the senator Flávio Bolsonaro.
The allegations by Facebook add to a burgeoning political crisis in Brazil, where Bolsonaro’s sons and supporters have been accused of running a coordinated online campaign to smear the president’s opponents.
Researchers at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, who spent a week analysing the activity identified by Facebook, said they had found five current and former political staffers who registered and operated the accounts. Some of those accounts posed as fake Brazilians and news outlets to spread “hyper-partisan views” supporting Bolsonaro and attacking his critics, said the researcher Luiza Bandeira. Their targets 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 targeted by this machine that uses online disinformation to mock and discredit them,” said Bandeira.
Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, said there was no evidence the politicians themselves had operated the accounts. “What we can prove is that employees of those offices are engaged on our platforms in this type of behaviour.”
Gleicher also said that, in the case of Stone, the removals were meant to show that artificially inflating engagement for political impact would be stopped, no matter how well connected the practitioners.
“It doesn’t matter what they’re saying, and it doesn’t matter who they are,” Gleicher told Reuters before the announcement. “We expect we’re going to see more political actors cross this line and use coordinated inauthentic behavior to try to influence public debate.”
Facebook officials said they took down 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 misbehavior, including the creation of fake accounts. The accounts spent more than $300,000 on advertisements over the past few years, Facebook said.
Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, was briefed on the actions beforehand, officials said.
The removals risk further angering Trump and other conservatives who accuse Facebook of suppressing rightwing voices. Facebook last month took down a Trump re-election ad that included a Nazi symbol, and it pledged to steer users to facts on voting when Trump, or anyone else, touches on the topic.
Stone was convicted last year for witness tampering and lying to Congress as it investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election. He is due to report to prison next week. He did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
In search warrant documents released this April, the FBI said a Stone assistant told interviewers in 2018 “that he purchased a couple hundred fake Facebook accounts as part of this work”.
Facebook said its investigation was influenced by the April search documents. But the company said that its unit guarding against coordinated inauthentic behavior had already been looking into Stone’s pages after a referral from a separate Facebook team monitoring dangerous organizations, which was tracking the Proud Boys.
Ben Nimmo, a disinformation specialist at Graphika, said the Stone network had been most active in 2016 and 2017, among other things promoting stories about the Democratic emails published by WikiLeaks as part of the Russian interference effort.
Many of the accounts were later deleted, and in recent weeks they have mostly reflected Stone’s quest to receive a pardon from Trump for his crimes, according to Nimmo.
“The inauthentic accounts were amplifying various Stone assets, like his page, or advertising one of his books,” Nimmo said.