Russia-Linked Facebook Pages Pushed Divisive Views Through August

By Georgia Wells Features Dow Jones Newswires

Some accounts that Facebook Inc. has said appear to be tied to Russian entities and bought ads around the U.S. election continued to post divisive messages as recently as this past August, according to saved versions of the now-deleted pages.

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"Secured Borders," a Facebook page that the social-media giant told congressional investigators bought ads during the presidential campaign last year, posted messages after the election that called for killing Muslims and that labeled illegal immigrants as "rapists, murderers, child molesters," according to cached versions of the page. A person with knowledge of the Facebook page confirmed its authenticity as well as that of three others.

The pages expressed extreme views on both sides of the U.S. political and social spectrum, espousing radical ideas that demonized opposing viewpoints. "Blacktivist," another Facebook page that bought ads during the campaign, posted videos that allegedly showed police violence toward blacks. "We could see that police are totally out of its mind and its actions are no longer correlate with common sense [sic]," said one post from August.

That same month, during the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Secured Borders posted an article from a separate site called The Blackshpere titled "Democrats ARE White Nationalists in Charlottesville." The article from Blacksphere, a site by conservative black commentator Kevin Jackson, included a photo showing civil-rights leader John Lewis, a representative from Georgia, in a defiant stance. Secured Borders added its own comment: "Charlottesville is a real mess. We're on the brink of another civil war."

Four of the accounts that remained active at least until late August -- "Secured Borders," "Blacktivist," "Heart of Texas" and "Being Patriotic" -- collectively had nearly a million followers before Facebook removed the accounts for violating its policies by misrepresenting their identities.

The four accounts are a sliver of the 470 accounts Facebook said last month appear to have ties to Russia and spent $100,000 to run divisive ads on its platform over a two-year period, from June 2015 to May 2017. The disclosure catapulted Facebook into the spotlight of lawmakers and the public for the role it potentially played in the election. On Monday, after presenting congressional investigators with the data from 3,000 ads, Facebook said it estimated 10 million users had seen the ads.

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Account holders typically build up their followings by paying for ads. Facebook said in a news release Monday that the ads likely served in part to recruit followers to the pages, since many appeared to encourage people to follow their pages or like their photos.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, one of two congressional committees probing Russian interference on Facebook and Twitter Inc., said Monday that ads from Facebook and Twitter are likely "the smallest concentric circle of Russian activity and there could very well be a lot more." Twitter didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Alphabet Inc.'s Google, which is conducting an internal investigation into Russian activity on its site and is talking with congressional investigators, as of Tuesday hadn't said if it has found any suspicious activity.

Facebook on Monday warned that it may not have uncovered all malicious activity that attempted to interfere in the American political process. Most of the ads focused on social issues such as gay rights, immigration, race and gun rights, rather than speaking directly about any of the presidential candidates, Facebook said, making them particularly hard to root out.

Russia has denied interfering in the election.

None of the four pages that were active through August included obvious wording or labels indicating that the content was of Russian origin.

Instead, the pages tried to pass for local content. "Heart of Texas" expressed support for a proposed state law allowing individuals to carry handguns without a permit. "Despite the harsh rhetoric from the liberals' side, the constitutional carry is a guarantee of peace and stability in Texas," read the post, which garnered more than 2,000 likes. "So passing this would definitely be a victory for all law abiding Texans."

"Secured Borders," which weighed in on a range of issues from immigration to applauding the nomination of Jim Mattis as Secretary of Defense, accumulated more than 133,000 followers by encouraging Facebook users to click on photos it posted. A post on Aug. 7, for example, called for the U.S. to secure the border to keep out illegal immigrants, with photographs of rallies. "Like if you agree," said the post.

The Secured Borders post about Charlottesville carries particular significance because tech companies including Facebook moved swiftly to cut off some sites and accounts that appeared to sympathize with or endorse the rally. That prompted some critics to wonder if free speech was being sacrificed.

Facebook said Monday that the company has debated whether to allow content that appears to sow division in countries at a time of unrest. Currently Facebook does allow such content if posted "authentically."

Facebook cautioned that it is possible that bad actors are still lurking on its social network. "We understand more about how our service was abused and we will continue to investigate to learn all we can," Facebook said in a statement on Monday.

--Natalie Andrews contributed to this article.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 03, 2017 13:38 ET (17:38 GMT)