I have been struggling to write about this network for a while. Coordinated inauthentic behavior. It’s big, tangled and sophisticated. It’s fascinating and spooky. I don’t know what direction to approach it to start unwrapping the layers and I am having trouble coming up with a catchy theme to tie it together as I pull it apart.
Back in March I stumbled into some stuff that I thought might be “big”. As I dug in and started to map it out- I kept running into other bogus activity. To avoid being distracted- but to not lose those other leads, I started a trash pile off to the side: unrelated questionable things to look at later. As I continued to dig, the trash pile grew, began to take shape and wound up being larger than the original investigation.
I took some time to arrange the secondary mess- which I eventually wrote about in “Implants and Extractions” My original plan for the year had been to tackle the problem of fake Native American Facebook pages from Eastern Europe- and now I found myself- like a whitewater rafter- being carried in a chaotic flood of foreign manipulation further from that goal and into the political spectrum.
I wanted to wrap it up with that original set before getting back to the insane situation with Fake Native Facebook, I need to tell the story.
Here is what I have:
- A substantial cluster of Facebook groups mostly based off of Fox News Hosts
- A tightly knit group of profiles who are the administrators of those groups
- a handful of websites they push into the Facebook traffic stream
- a set of supporting profiles who also seed links into groups
What’s holding me up? Maybe it’s the question of doxxing. Some of the groups have been able to enlist real people to work as moderators and I feel bad about the situation. They probably don’t know what they are involved with, at least not the full extent of it. To complicate things more, some of those real Americans seem to running their own racket that closely resembles foreign manipulation, while some of the foreigners are using very authentic accounts alongside some synthetic ones. Facebook is going to have to sort it out with their tools and guiding terms of service.
A feature of this network that makes it harder to suss out, is it’s level of sophistication. The ratio of spamming to cover is very low. The cluster of profiles puts a lot of effort into supporting behaviors, while there may be some automation, it’s clear a lot of human labor is involved. What do I mean by supporting behaviors?
- liking timeline posts made by other network profiles
- sharing a random post made by a member in a group, onto their timeline
- sharing other non-network content
- posting memes and other non-monetized filler
- indirect sharing of network content: reposting a network profile’s post
- amplifying each other’s work in non-network groups
- natural appearance of commenting
- network group focus seems more about growing membership than spamming
The main websites:
The motive seems to be profit, not propaganda. The restraint these clickbaiters show and the care they take in spamming makes them stand apart from the typical rabble who games for traffic… in fact the sloppy ones provide some distracting cover.
For example- this morning when I visited one of the network groups to grab some screenshots- I saw they were being spammed by 2 bots seeding links for a website from Macedonia. It’s possible that they have an arrangement or this spammer has intruded on the network’s audience. Seven posts, five stories, three hours, two bots, one website… a person wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that this group’s function was supporting links for the Macedonian. Having two different bots seed links to the same story into a group just four minutes apart- or for one bot to post the same story twice in an hour? That’s just greedy sloppy scheduling of the autoposter! A clickbaiter can only get away with this sort of garbage with an audience of the lowest hanging fruit and admins who don’t care. (Not to mention the Facebook platform AI that has a big blindspot in its spam and bot detection)
Here is the list of groups I came up with:
- Candace Owens Fans (5641 members)
- I Stand With Sean Hannity (2982 members)
- Fox News Babes (400 members) closed group
- We Love Sarah Sanders #MAGA (761 members)
- Sarah Sanders Supporters (3034 members)
- Tomi Lahren Fox News (4407 members)
- Tucker Carlson Fan Group (656 members)
- The TREY GOWDY SUPPORTERS (1790 members) closed group
- TREY GOWDY MAGA (1484 members)
- Judge Jeanine Pirro Friends (brand new page 08/06/19 – 9 likes)
- Judge Jeanine Pirro Fans (59,046 members) facebook.com/groups/1230962870360457
- TV Fox News Babes! (3000 members) facebook.com/groups/429183807440213
- Bill O’Reilly Fans (65,000 members) facebook.com/groups/121482205071024
On that note, I would like to take a moment to implore Facebook to be more transparent and communicative about the actions they take and why. The American conservative community justifiably feels that they are under some sort of censorship attack. Facebook publishes blogposts that merely quantify the number of profiles and groups removed. Without listing them specifically or notifying the involved parties- the resulting voids confirm suspicions about censorship. While the censorship conspiracy gathers evidence and rumors circulate, nothing is offered to help people understand how their filter bubble is shaped by foreign interference and the gaming for their attention by frauds, cheaters and scammers.
Maybe people aren’t being censored, but they sure are being gas-lit!
Over the weekend the Candace Owens Fans group was locked down and there was some confusion about what was going on and who was behind it. Did Facebook do it? or had an Admin archived the group to do some maintenance? Many felt that it was Candace Owens who was being censored… that’s because they don’t know that the group isn’t hers and don’t consider other reasons why the group might be in crisis. The fact that those other groups were deleted and these nine remain, tells me that Facebook may not even be aware of the real problem with the group. Otherwise they would have done a more thorough job scanning the surrounds and looking at connections before they hit the delete button on the Pirro and O’Reilly groups.
Update August 14, 2019: The Candace Owens Fans group has changed their cover photo and the Queen Bee, Alexandra, has either deactivated her account or it was deleted by Facebook.
I would like to mention that I discovered and logged the majority of this network in a spreadsheet in a time when the graph search was still functioning. I do not know if this ever would have come together for me as it did, without that tool. Yes, there are still ways to find things- I’m not going to give up, but things got a whole lot harder for people.
The Admin team of the Candace Owens Fans group consists of 11. There are five I’d like to highlight. I’ll start with Alexandra, I call her the Queen Bee.
She went to college at the Ohio Christian University, is from Columbus and now lives in Circleville. She has 358 friends and posts entirely political content from a wide variety of sources. Her profile picture, uploaded on January 21, 2019, is a beautiful teal blue toned fantasy art of a mermaid in pearls emerging from a moonlit ocean. Dreamy.
The photos she has uploaded are mainly memes and glamour portraits of the First Family. There are a few pictures that appear more personal- but they don’t pass this dog lover’s sniff test.
That deer is nothing like what we have in Ohio, it’s not even an elk- it’s an exotic Sambar deer shot in Victoria Australia. The woman in the photo is Emma Sears. As for the cute maternity pictures with that zig-zag summer top- that’s Whitney Bowie and you can read about it in this Buzzfeed story by Victoria Sanusi. The profile really is crumbling now, but I’ll add that the gender is marked as male and sometime around July 14- something happened to Alexandra’s timeline: a bunch of the content she had shared converted to “attachment unavailable” notifications. Alexandra is an admin in all nine of the still active groups and the three deleted groups as well.
Next up is Eric Beaton. His profile doesn’t have much info. Just 32 friends and one page like. Not much to see here.
He’s posting a random assortment of memes and shares of other people’s shares. If you were already familiar with the whole cluster of accounts- you’d notice that at least 20 of Eric’s friends are Admins, Seeders and Amplifiers of this network. His profile picture is a spooky sullen grey wolf with glowing red eyes… and that picture was uploaded on July 14. Hmm. So that probably explains why the profile link I had for him didn’t work even though he still appeared as an administrator in 6 of the nine active groups. That also might explain why so much of the stuff Alexandra shared before the July 14th had vanished. He was also an admin in all 3 of the deleted groups. His profile was probably deleted and he just made a new one and went back to work.
Matt Todd, originally from Beavercreek just outside Dayton and now residing in Lima is another Ohio native with a bare bones profile. He’s marked as female, the friends are hidden.
He has only uploaded three photos ever. The cover photo and profile picture (both of President Trump) were uploaded on January 19, 2019. (That’s two days before Alexandra uploaded her profile photo for those keeping track) Matt’s timeline is a wreck. Of the 35 posts publicly visible going back to January (including the profile pictures) 20 of them show an attachment unavailable notice.
Ever since we lost graph search I have gotten in the habit to check who has liked a photo. When Matt Todd updated her profile picture, a bunch of people liked it. I see some familiar names and the ones I don’t recognize are people from Kosovo, Serbia and Albania. Matt is an admin in 6 of the remaining groups and was an admin of the deleted Bill O’Reilly group.
Next up- Eni King. He has an even 100 friends. The groundhog profile picture was uploaded that week of January 25, 2019… it’s been replaced with an American flag.
What’s special about him is that he’s promoting one of the network groups, “We Stand With Sean Hannity” as well as pushing links to the network websites on his timeline, THEWASHINGTONDAILYNEWS.TODAY and EDUCATIONBLOGIT.BLOGSPOT.COM.
I call this sort of thing a trailhead. If I stumbled across this profile at random- there would be plenty of clues to follow down the rabbithole to discover this network of groups. Eni is an Admin in 4 of the active groups and was an admin of the Bill O’Reilly group too.
There is another Eni in this network, Eni Sutton. There are also a handful of Kings. There’s Dorothy Powell King, Loris King, and Ed King.
Eni Sutton is an admin in 4 of the remaining groups and was an admin in the two huge deleted ones. The King bunch aren’t admins in the groups but are supporting seeders, commenters and likers, you’ll see that in a minute. this one with 151,000 members– it has a lot of the network has embedded) Choose the name of one of the profiles I mentioned, and search in the group for their name. Look at their posts and note what they share. Then open the comments and take note of who is commenting.
Laura Carton is admin in the Hannity and Sarah Sanders Supporters group. Her profile dates back to 2013 and says she is from California City California. For a long time her profile picture was a rather smug looking older woman, and that photo is the only picture of that woman in the assortment of MAGA memes and stock Trump pics uploaded. She shares a wide variety of posts but never anything personal. Around May 27th something happened, as her timeline falls to pieces before that date.
Then there’s Kate and Julie. Kate J. Bowenn’s profile was made July 2nd and her friend list is an almost pure collection of the network knot. Julie J. Bowenn’s profile was made July 18th and the first posts she made that day now show as unavailable. She shares a wide variety of mainstream news links to her timeline and is an admin in Tomi Lahren Fox News & I stand with Sean Hannity.
I recently found @CindyOtis_ on Twitter, she has a book coming out next year on Identifying and Fighting Fake News. Her cover photo is a slide from a DFR presentation:
I couldn’t agree more. I frequently think of the modern fight against disinformation like the Victory Garden of the past- it’s something we all need to do. Everyone has to pitch in for our efforts to pay off. When I think of how many people came in contact with this foreign network every day, Americans even working with them as admins in their groups!… and the administrators of the other American groups who let them in and let them post- looking past all the spamming. The people who have friended the fake profiles, the audiences who take the bait and go along with the plan. Yes, many real people protect their privacy and many have a separate anonymized account just for their political soapbox- this provides a perfect environment for inauthentic players to do their thing without being called to account. I think we have to stop being quite so trusting and accepting- and I don’t mean getting paranoid- I mean getting smart.
One last thing Americans, if someone ever calls you out and doubts your authenticity or intent. Don’t get offended. You should be happy to have the opportunity to prove yourself. Thank that person for caring enough to stick their neck out and ask. Patriotism isn’t just an American Flag for a profile photo. Do what it takes to reassure them.