have taken down a global network of fake accounts used in a coordinated campaign to push pro-Trump political messages, including some that used artificial intelligence tools to try to mask the behavior, the companies and outside research firms they worked with said on Friday.
The move targeted a U.S.-based media company that also operates out of Vietnam called The BL, which, Facebook alleges, used computer-generated profile pictures to cover up the orchestrated nature of its activities. Facebook linked the company to the Epoch Media Group, which has had ties to the Falun Gong movement, a spiritual movement based in China which has clashed with the Chinese government and supported President Trump’s reelection.
The BL, also known as the Beauty of Life, is “currently working with Facebook to resolve the issue,” said Orysia McCabe, the website’s editor in chief. She didn’t say how the company planned to settle the matter with Facebook.
In a statement posted to his company’s website, Epoch Media Group Publisher
denied any connection between BL and his company, saying that BL was “founded by a former employee, and employs some of our former employees.” Epoch Media is neither owned nor operated by Falun Gong, the company has said.
A Facebook spokeswoman responded by saying that executives of The BL were active administrators on Epoch Media Group-controlled pages as recently as Friday morning, when The BL accounts were deleted by Facebook.
The use of AI-generated photos to pass off the accounts as real represents a new tool for those trying to use fake accounts to amplify their message on social-media platforms. It adds to the longstanding practice of stealing other people’s photos, using stock images for profile pictures and hijacking other peoples’ accounts. The use of AI comes as Facebook and others are using their own tools to help spot fake accounts.
The large deployment of AI-generated photos in this way “was the first time we’ve seen this at scale,” said Ben Nimmo, of Graphika, an social-media analytics firm that worked with Facebook to investigate the network.
The tech giant said the BL, which the social-media company has now banned from its platform, ran 610 accounts, 89 pages, 156 groups on Facebook—in addition to 72 accounts on Facebook-owned Instagram. The fake accounts accrued more than 55 million followers, Facebook said, adding most of them were outside of the U.S. The accounts targeted people in Vietnam as well as global audiences speaking Chinese and Spanish, Facebook said.
The network of fake accounts bolstered its efforts by spending more than $9 million on advertising on the platform.
The BL itself had more than 1.5 million Facebook followers as of Tuesday, according to a version of its Facebook page captured by the Internet Archive. Facebook said. Graphika’s Mr. Nimmo said the network, by followers, was the biggest found to date.
A Twitter spokesman said the company “identified and suspended approximately 700 accounts originating from Vietnam for violating our rules around platform manipulation—specifically fake accounts and spam.” The company did not identify who owned the accounts.
The accounts had a relatively low number of followers, he said, and have been permanently suspended. Twitter said it was still investigating but “our initial findings have not identified links between these accounts and state-backed actors.”
Facebook said it may remove additional accounts.
“We are continuing to investigate all linked networks, and will take action as appropriate if we determine they are engaged in deceptive behavior,”
Facebook’s head of security policy, said in a blog post. Mr. Gleicher said “open source reporting” aided its investigation.
Last week, one of Facebook’s own fact-checking partners, Lead Stories, alleged that The BL had been generating fake profiles using pictures from ThisPersonDoesNotExist.com, a website showcasing the ease of producing photos that look realistic using artificial intelligence.
Facebook asked researchers from the Digital Forensic Research Lab, an arm of the Atlantic Council, a non-partisan think tank, and Graphika to conduct an independent analysis of the network, according to a report by the two groups.
“This case shows that there is a huge market demand for boosting online engagement and increasingly sophisticated methods to do so in a manipulative or inauthentic way,” Graham Brookie, director of the Digital Forensic Research Lab said. The network stood out, he said, because of how flagrantly it used manipulative tactics.
Fact-checking site Snopes, which isn’t a Facebook partner, faulted the social-media company for not acting sooner. It said it had previously alerted Facebook to BL’s alleged behavior and, in recent months, provided a list of allegedly fake accounts. Vinny Green, Snopes’s vice president of operations, argued that Facebook’s failure to act earlier demonstrates its inability to protect political discussion online.
Mr. Gleicher acknowledged that the investigation had taken Facebook five months to complete, but said that time was needed to ensure Facebook had caught the entire network of accounts.
“This is the soonest we could taken action on it,” he said, adding that the age of the networks of accounts that Facebook has removed is dropping as the company gains experience combating organized abuse.
Separately, Facebook also took down a network of more than 400 pages, groups and Facebook and Instagram accounts it linked to inauthentic behavior in the country of Georgia.
—Alexa Corse and Betsy Morris contributed to this article.
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