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Facebook purged over 800 accounts and pages pushing political messages for profit

Facebook purged over 800 accounts and pages pushing political messages for profit
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a joint hearing of the Commerce and Judiciary committees in Washington on April 10. (Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

Facebook said Thursday that it has purged more than 800 U.S publishers and accounts for flooding users with politically oriented content that violated the company's spam policies, a move that could reignite accusations of political censorship.

The accounts and pages, with names like Reasonable People Unite and Reverb Press, were likely domestic actors using clickbait headlines and other spammy tactics to drive users to websites where they could target them with ads, the company said. Some had hundreds of thousands of followers and expressed a range of political viewpoints, including a page which billed itself as the first publication to endorse President Trump. They did not appear to have ties to Russia, company officials said.

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Facebook said it was removing the publishers and accounts not because of the type of content they posted, but because of the behaviors they engaged in, including spamming Facebook groups with identical pieces of content and using fake profiles.

"Today, we're removing 559 Pages and 251 accounts that have consistently broken our rules against spam and coordinated inauthentic behavior," the company said in a blog post. "People will only share on Facebook if they feel safe and trust the connections they make here."

But the move to target American politically oriented sites, just weeks before the congressional midterm elections, is sure to be a flashpoint for political groups and their allies, which are already attacking the tech giant for political bias and for arbitrary censorship of political content.

Ever since Russian operatives used Facebook to target American voters ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Facebook has been under immense pressure to crack down on content that could disrupt the democratic process in the United States. But the challenge of policing domestic content is even thornier than going after foreign interference because it is harder to define what constitutes legitimate political expression. By removing the groups entirely, Facebook is effectively saying that they will not have an opportunity to redeem themselves.

One of the pages — "Nation In Distress" — pitched itself as the "first online publication to endorse President Donald J Trump." Founded in 2012, it had amassed more than 3.2 million likes and over 3 million followers, according to a Washington Post review on Thursday. In recent posts and photos, it had criticized journalists for failing to report on Trump's approach to China and shared a link to a story that had called Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) "demented." The page affiliated itself with a website called "America's Freedom Fighters," which appeared to post its own content and duplicate press releases written by others about violent crimes and gun rights — all alongside a sidebar of ads.

Another page, Reverb Press, had more than 700,000 followers. Posts attacked Trump and referred to Republicans as "cheating scumbags." Reasonable People Unite, another left-leaning page that Facebook purged, had posted a screenshot from a Twitter user who said, "Somewhere in America, a teenage girl is listening to her parents defend Brett Kavanaugh and she is thinking to herself, if something like that happens to me, I have nowhere to go."

Facebook has long struggled with where to draw lines around domestic content. After the 2016 election, company executives declined to purge thousands of misleading pages for fear that doing so would alienate conservatives, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

“It is totally reasonable for companies to say, ‘If you abuse our mechanisms, we will punish you, even if the individual content is OK,’ ” said Alex Stamos, who resigned as Facebook’s chief security officer this summer and is now a Stanford University professor. “Facebook first reduced the ability to use ads to punish extreme content. Now they are attacking organic recommendation systems, such as the likes and shares used to artificially inflate posts.”

Even though Facebook removed accounts and pages, many of the sites that appear to be behind that content remained alive and active elsewhere on the web — a reflection that the challenge of stamping out potentially misleading content online far transcends Facebook.

In the “about” section of the now-suspended Nation in Distress page, for example, was a link to the America’s Freedom Fighters website. That site pointed to another suspended Facebook page and a still-active Twitter profile, which continued posting even minutes after Facebook had taken action against its accounts.

The left-leaning Reverb Press, meanwhile, maintains an active website which links to the disabled Facebook page, a still-available Twitter profile and smartphone apps available for iPhone and Android.

Twitter didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Neither website immediately responded to a request for comment.

2:55 p.m.: This article was updated with comment from Stanford professor Alex Stamos and with information about the online presences of groups whose Facebook pages were purged.

This article was originally published at 11:15 a.m.

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