Troll farms reached 140 million Americans a month on Facebook ahead of the 2020 elections

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MIT Technology Review

Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesperson, said in a statement that at the time of Allen’s report, the company “had already explored these issues,” adding, “Since then, we’ve set up teams, developed new guidelines, and worked with industry peers to help to address these networks. We have taken aggressive enforcement action against these types of foreign and domestic phony groups and have publicly shared the results quarterly. “

In reviewing this story shortly before publication, the MIT Technology Review found that five of the troll farm sites mentioned in the report remained active.

This is the largest troll farm site targeting African Americans in October 2019. She remains active on Facebook.

The report found that troll farms reached the same demographic groups selected by the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency (IRA) during the 2016 election that targeted Christians, Black Americans and Native Americans. A 2018 investigation by BuzzFeed News found that at least one member of the Russian IRA charged with alleged meddling in the 2016 US election had also visited Macedonia in connection with the establishment of its first troll farms, although there was no concrete evidence found for a connection. (Facebook said its investigations had also found no link between the IRA and Macedonian troll farms.)

“This is not normal. This is not healthy,” wrote Allen. “We have enabled inauthentic actors to amass a huge following for largely unknown purposes … The fact that actors with possible IRA connections have access to huge audiences in the same demographics that are targeted by the IRA poses a huge risk to the US 2020 election. “

As long as troll farms successfully use these tactics, so too could any other bad actor, he continued: “When troll farms reach 30 million US users with content that is targeted at African Americans, we shouldn’t be surprised if we discover that, too the IRA currently has a large audience there. “

Allen wrote the report as the fourth and final installment of his year and a half effort to understand troll farms. He left the company that month, in part out of frustration that the leadership “effectively ignored” his research, according to the former Facebook employee who delivered the report. Allen declined to comment.

The report reveals the alarming state in which the Facebook leadership abandoned the platform for years, despite repeated public promises to act aggressively against foreign electoral interference. MIT Technology Review is providing the full report with staff names blacked out as it is in the public interest.

His revelations include:

  • In October 2019, around 15,000 Facebook pages with a mostly US audience from Kosovo and Macedonia, who were known to be bad actors in the 2016 elections, were blocked.
  • In total, these troll farm pages – which the report treats as a single page for comparison purposes – reached 140 million US users monthly and 360 million weekly users worldwide. The Walmart site reached the second largest audience in the US at 100 million.
  • The pages of the troll farm have also been grouped into the following elements:
    • the largest Christian-American page on Facebook, 20 times the size of the next largest – it reaches 75 million US users a month, 95% of whom have never followed any of the pages.
    • the largest African American page on Facebook, three times the size of the next largest – it reaches 30 million US users a month, 85% of whom have never followed any of the pages.
    • the second largest Native American page on Facebook, with 400,000 monthly users, 90% of whom had never followed any of the pages.
    • the fifth largest women’s site on Facebook, reaching 60 million US users a month, 90% of whom have never followed any of the sites.
  • Troll farms mainly affect the US, but also target the UK, Australia, India, and Central and South American countries.
  • Facebook has conducted several studies that confirmed that content that is more likely to receive user interactions (likes, comments, and shares) is more of a type that is known to be bad. Still, the company has continued to rank content in users’ newsfeeds based on what gets the highest engagement.
  • Facebook prohibits sites from posting content that has merely been copied and pasted from other parts of the platform, but does not enforce the policy against known malicious actors. This makes it easy for foreign actors who do not speak the local language to publish fully copied content and still reach a huge audience. Up to 40% of the page views on US sites were at times to sites with predominantly unoriginal content or material of limited originality.
  • Trollfarms previously enrolled in Facebook’s Instant Articles and Ad Breaks partnership programs designed to help news organizations and other publishers monetize their articles and videos. At one point, due to a lack of basic quality controls, up to 60% of the Instant Articles read went to content that had been plagiarized by other parties. This made it easy for troll farms to intervene unnoticed and even receive payments from Facebook.

How Facebook enables troll farms and grows their audience

The report looks specifically at troll farms in Kosovo and Macedonia run by people who do not necessarily understand American politics. However, due to the way Facebook’s newsfeed reward systems are designed, they can still have a significant impact on political discourse.

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