Which Pro-Government Pages Were Removed by Facebook and Which Were Deactivated by Their Admins?
On December 20, social networking site Facebook removed 418 accounts from its platform for coordinated inauthentic behavior, including 344 pages, 13 groups, 39 profiles and 22 Instagram accounts.
Facebook’s investigation found that people behind these accounts attempted to conceal their identities, acted in coordination and were linked to an advertising agency Panda and the Georgian Dream-led government. In its statement Facebook mainly focused on the coordinated pages and stated that these pages posed as news organizations and impersonated political parties, public figures, activist groups and civil society organizations. The page admins and account owners typically posted about political issues, elections, government policies, public officials, criticism of the opposition and local activists and organizations.
Anonymous Facebook pages engaged in coordinated behavior became a focus for ISFED early on during the 2018 presidential election. Discrediting pages were one of the primary subjects of ISFED’s social media monitoring. During the monitoring ISFED identified anonymous discrediting pages and informed Facebook about them on several occasions, in order for Facebook to establish existence of possible coordinated inauthentic behavior among them.
Naturally, public is interested which Facebook pages in particular were engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of the government. Based on its policy, Facebook refrains from disclosing the list of 344 pages removed from the platform. However, after analyzing the database of Facebook pages in monitoring software programs used by ISFED, we have identified some of the pages undoubtedly removed by Facebook.
As of December 20, 2019, in its social media monitoring databases, along with other types of pages ISFED had identified 174 pages discrediting and pro-government pages operating anonymously and in a coordinated manner, for the purpose of discrediting opponents, media, civil society organizations and activists. These pages included:
- Openly discrediting pages – 101
- False media pages (pages that posed as media organizations) – 41
- False supporting pages (pages that pretended to support a particular party/candidate) – 16
- Pages disseminating fake news – 8
- Pro-government propaganda pages – 6
- Blogs of fake non-existent persons – 2.
In addition to pages operating on behalf of the government, ISFED had also identified 38 pages that operated against the Georgian Dream and Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Out of the 174 discrediting and pro-government propaganda pages identified by ISFED, Facebook has removed 87 pages while 15 pages have been seemingly deactivated by their own page admins. In addition, 18 pages are also unavailable but it is not clear whether they have been removed by Facebook or deactivated by the page admins themselves. As of today, 54 pages operating in favor of the government are still active. Tables containing the lists of these pages are provided in Annex.
Facebook removed some of the pages monitored by ISFED and a total of 344 pages, far more than the number of discrediting and pro-government propaganda pages under ISFED’s observation. It is possible that some pages removed by Facebook were not as active to be visible for ISFED or they used tactics different from discrediting pages (e.g. Clickbaits), or among them were other types of pages (including non-political) managed by Panda.
Self-deactivation as a way of “survival” – tactics used following Facebook cleansing
Majority of anonymous discrediting pages, false media pages, pages disseminating fake news and false supporting pages, which ISFED had identified so far, have been removed by Facebook – a total of 87 pages. Some 12 pages have been deactivated and are no longer available. However, it seems that they have been deactivated not by Facebook but by the page admins themselves. ISFED can make this conclusion based on the fact that these particular pages were still visible as active and operating pages in ISFED’s monitoring software, even after Facebook’s removal of accounts; some of them could be found even on December 21 and 22. Highly likely, the reason behind self-deactivation is to remove traces of coordinated inauthentic behavior, possibly through diversifying their administrators and deleting similar posts. Some of these pages have amassed broad audiences of Facebook users as suggested by the number of page likes and they also used to publish many posts, which leads us to believe that they may be restored based on political necessity and attempt to influence the information space of a broad audience of Facebook users again. Despite deactivation, ISFED has stored their unique Facebook ID addresses and it will be possible to identify these pages, even if page admins restore them under different names.
Following removal of pages for coordinated inauthentic behavior, organizers of discrediting campaigns continue to wage the previously identified targeted smear campaign using new strategies. This time the following three types of trends were identified:
- Creating new pages and sponsoring posts – for instance, a false media page called “Polit Matsne” was created on December 24, it had 2 sponsored posts the same day.
- Deactivating existing anonymous discrediting pages with an audience of thousands of people and using identical pages. For instance, “clones” of pages deactivated by the page admins have resurfaced, which were created in July 2019 and are exactly identical to pages “hidden” by admins, in terms of their names, profile photos, covers and contents of published posts. Such pages include: “They want two bodies” (created on 29 July 2019), “Political Dumpster” (created on 30 July 2019), “You were there and you should have done it” (created on 30 July 2019).
- Sharing posts in Facebook groups with thousands of members, in order to disseminate their messages.
What discrediting tactics did the removed pages use?
During the monitoring, ISFED divides anonymous discrediting Facebook pages into different categories, according to their behavior and discrediting tactics used. Below are major categories and description of their actions. For each category, it is indicated how many pages were removed by Facebook and how many were self-deactivated.
Openly discrediting pages: they create a network of Facebook pages that quickly and operatively react on political developments in social media, in favor of the government, manifested by discrediting, mocking, diminishing importance of and insulting events or individuals unfavorable to the government, following their public activities. They target everyone that criticizes the ruling party’s political course and is active in any form in this respect.
From 101 openly discrediting pages identified by ISFED, 40 are still active. Facebook removed 30 pages, 13 were deactivated by the page admins and 18 are unavailable but the reason why they are no longer functioning is unknown to ISFED.
False media pages: using the names resembling those of news agencies, these pages tried to trick Facebook users and posed as legitimate media outlets. In reality their aim was to create a source of alternative information on social media, for providing information to public in a selective manner, serving a particular political agenda and using sponsored posts. Such pages mostly disseminated information for portraying the government in a positive light and discrediting its opponents. Such false news pages did not even shy away from spreading complete false information.
Out of the 41 false media pages identified by ISFED, Facebook removed 35, one was deactivated by its admin and 5 are still active.
False supporting discrediting pages that pretend to support a particular party/candidate: among social media pages operating for political purposes, the false supporting pages confuse, mislead and disorient Facebook users the most, because they are disguised. They mostly pretend to support a particular political party or candidate, while in reality they target those in favor of whom they seem to operate.
ISFED identified 16 pages that pretended to operate in favor of and therefore, against the UNM, Shame movement, movement “Lelo”, united platform of opposition on the election system, former Chkondidi Bishop Petre Tsaava. These pages did not publish a lot of content but instead, they selectively published dubious and misleading posts following certain political events and sponsored them heavily.
From 16 false supporting pages identified by ISFED, 13 were removed by Facebook, one was deactivated by the page admins and two are still active.
Pages that disseminate fake news: until June 2019, dissemination of fake news in its classic sense was not evident on Georgian Facebook. Instead, the primary tool for manipulating information was misinformation, i.e. discrediting unfavorable individuals by citing facts out of context and using mostly satirical and cynical tone. However, following the June protest rallies, along with the existing discrediting tactics, some Facebook pages launched the campaign of spreading massive fake news, which reached alarming forms and extent.
ISFED had identified 8 pages spreading complete fake news; 100% of their posts were only photo manipulations and they reached peak activity in June.
All 8 pages disseminating complete fake news were removed by Facebook.
ISFED carries out social media monitoring within the context of election and political processes using a specially designed methodology. In the process of monitoring, the organization relies on software and digital tools for systematic collection, processing and analysis of information. ISFED’s social media monitoring reports and blog posts are available here.
In January 2020, ISFED will publish its subsequent comprehensive report and recommendations regarding disinformation and discrediting campaigns carried out for influencing public opinion using Facebook.