Facebook Inc on Wednesday removed 50 personal and professional pages connected to United States President Donald Trump’s longtime adviser Roger Stone, who is due to report to prison next week.
The social media platform said Stone and his associates, including a prominent supporter of the right-wing Proud Boys group in Stone’s home state of Florida, had used fake accounts and followers to promote Stone’s books and posts.
Facebook moved against Stone on the same day it took down accounts tied to employees of the family of Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro and two other networks connected to domestic political operations in Ecuador and Ukraine.
Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, said the removals were meant to show that artificially inflating engagement for political impact would be stopped, no matter how well connected the practitioners.
“It doesn’t matter what they’re saying, and it doesn’t matter who they are,” Gleicher told Reuters before the announcement. “We expect we’re going to see more political actors cross this line and use coordinated inauthentic behaviour to try to influence public debate.”
In Brazil, the allegations by Facebook add to a burgeoning political crisis, where Bolsonaro’s sons and supporters have been accused of running a coordinated online campaign to smear the president’s opponents.
The company said that despite efforts to disguise who was behind the activity, it had found links to the staff of two Brazilian lawmakers, as well as the president and his sons, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro and Senator Flavio Bolsonaro.
Bolsonaro, who is also under mounting criticism over his handling of the coronavirus outbreak, has said the court’s investigation is unconstitutional and risks establishing censorship in Brazil by policing what people can say online.
Some of those accounts posed as fake Brazilians and news outlets to spread “hyper-partisan views” supporting Bolsonaro and attacking his critics. Their targets included opposition lawmakers, former ministers and members of Brazil’s Supreme Court.
Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg was briefed on the actions beforehand, officials said. Facebook has come under increasing pressure in recent weeks to better police how political groups use its platform.
Hundreds of advertisers have joined a boycott aimed at forcing the company to block hate speech on its site, and multiple employees walked out last month over Zuckerberg’s decision not to challenge inflammatory posts by Trump.
The removals risk further angering Trump and other conservatives who accuse Facebook of suppressing right-wing voices. Facebook last month took down a Trump re-election ad that included a Nazi symbol, and it pledged to steer users to facts on voting when Trump, or anyone else, touches on the topic.
Facebook is under pressure from civil rights advocates and allied groups as well, and hundreds of advertisers have joined a boycott demanding the company crack down on hateful and divisive messages.
Stone was convicted last year for witness tampering and lying to Congress as it investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election. Stone did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
In search warrant documents released this April, the FBI said a Stone assistant told interviewers in 2018 “that he purchased a couple hundred fake Facebook accounts as part of this work.”
Graphika analyst Ben Nimmo, a disinformation specialist, said the Stone network had been most active in 2016 and 2017, among other things promoting stories about the Democratic emails published by WikiLeaks as part of the Russian interference effort.
Many of the accounts were later deleted, and in recent weeks they have mostly reflected Stone’s quest to receive a pardon from Trump for his crimes, according to Nimmo.
“The inauthentic accounts were amplifying various Stone assets, like his page, or advertising one of his books,” Nimmo said.
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