Facebook announced Friday it has taken down nearly 700 fake accounts in an international network with 55 million followers pushing messages supporting President Donald Trump. Facebook linked the network to the controversial right-wing media website The Epoch Times.
Part of the network’s sophisticated subterfuge was mobilizing artificial-intelligence-generated photos to make accounts operated in part from Vietnam appear to belong to actual people, according to a Facebook statement. The network forked out $9.5 million in advertising on the social media platform to promote the fake accounts, according to Facebook.
The social media company traced the accounts to The BL (Beauty of Life), a U.S.-based media company that also operates out of Vietnam that Facebook linked to Epoch Media Group, owner of The Epoch Times. The BL reportedly has had ties to the China-based spiritual group Falun Gong, which supported Trump’s election. A former Epoch Times editor told NBC earlier this year that Falun Gong followers “believe that Trump was sent by heaven to destroy the Communist Party.”
The BL Facebook accounts were shut down and permanently banned for “coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a government or foreign actor,” said a statement posted by Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy.
“What’s new here is that this is purportedly a U.S.-based media company leveraging foreign actors posing as Americans to push political content,” Gleicher told NBC News.
The fake accounts pushed anti-impeachment and pro-Trump messages, along with other messages that might be written by Americans about daily life.
Facebook removed 610 network accounts on Facebook and an additional 72 accounts on Facebook-owned Instagram linked to The BL, according to Gleicher.
Twitter also announced Friday that it “identified and suspended approximately 700 accounts originating from Vietnam for violating our rules around platform manipulation — specifically fake accounts and spam.” But the company did not identify the owner of the accounts.
Facebook is “continuing to investigate all linked networks, and will take action as appropriate if we determine they are engaged in deceptive behavior,” Gleicher said in a post.
The Epoch Times remains one of the largest political ad spenders on YouTube, which is owned by Google, NBC reported.
Orysia McCabe, the editor-in-chief of The BL’s website, told The Wall Street Journal that the company is “currently working with Facebook to resolve the issue.” But there was no mention of that in Facebook’s statement.
Epoch Media Group Publisher Stephen Gregory, in a statement in The Epoch Times on Friday, denied any connection with The BL. He admitted that The BL is a publication of Epoch Times Vietnam but noted that Epoch Times Vietnam was no longer listed as part of Epoch Media Group as of October.
But a Facebook spokesperson told the Journal that executives of The BL were active administrators on pages controlled by the Epoch Media Group as of Friday morning before the accounts were taken down.
Epoch Media representatives have previously denied any connection with Falun Gong.
The fact-checking operation Snopes said it had alerted Facebook to the existence of the fake accounts months ago and complained that the company should have acted sooner to protect authentic political discussion on social media.