Facebook announced that it removed hundreds of fake accounts attributed to four different information operations on Wednesday. Two of the operations were tied to professional PR or advertising firms and one of them was connected to former Trump advisor Roger Stone. According to the company, the four operations spent over $3.5 million on advertising.
The network associated with Stone consisted of 50 Facebook pages, 54 accounts, and four Instagram pages. It was also associated with the Proud Boys, a far-right men’s rights group the social media company banned in 2018 for breaking “policies against hate organizations and figures.”
According to the release, people in the network posed as Florida residents and made “their own content to make it appear more popular than it is.” It spent about $308,000 on ads and purchased fake followers from Pakistan and Egypt.
Stone’s own account was suspended. Although Facebook doesn’t provide data on all content promoted by the Stone-affiliated fake accounts and pages, the provided screenshots from 2016 show that it posted articles from InfoWars, Stone’s personal website, and left-leaning watchdog Media Matters.
“The Page admins and account owners posted about local politics in Florida, Roger Stone and his Pages, websites, books, and media appearances, a Florida land and water resources bill, the hacked materials released by Wikileaks ahead of the US 2016 election, candidates in the 2016 primaries and general election, and the Roger Stone trial,” the release said.
The takedown reached around the world, affecting three separate networks that centered in Ecuador and Canada, Ukraine, and Brazil.
Two other networks removed were affiliated with professional firms, continuing a trend of professionalization of disinformation. One, a PR firm connected to Canada and Ecuador called Estraterra, spent about $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 election,” spent about $1.93 million.
The Ukraine network previously faced takedowns for hate speech and impersonation. It was run by Postmen DA, an ad agency that describes itself as “the most effective digital agency.
Estraterra founder and CEO Roberto Wohlgemuth told BuzzFeed News that Facebook did not notify him of the takedowns, which Facebook said involved “41 Facebook accounts, 77 Pages, and 56 Instagram accounts.”
Although Wohlgemuth’s firm is based in Canada, according to the Facebook release the network didn’t target the country, instead focusing on Ecuador, Venezuela, and Chile. Wohlgemuth’s LinkedIn page says he is a former senior advisor to the Ecuadorian president “on matters of strategic and political communication.”
“British Newspaper Financial Times asks for an end to sanctions against Venezuela,” said one sample Instagram post released by the company. The post got six likes.
“It is false that in every year that ends in 20 of each century there is a new pandemic,” said another Instagram post attributed to the network, which was even less popular at three likes.
Some of the accounts removed were attributed to a network in Brazil, which targeted audiences in that country. In this case, pages pretended to be news outlets while spreading criticism of President Jair Bolsonaro’s political opposition. According to Facebook, this activity was attributed directly to Bolsonaro, his two sons, and the right-wing Social Liberal Party.