Right-Wingers Posing as Left-Wingers Still Troll Facebook

Two years ago, news broke about evidence confirming Russian buyers used Facebook advertising as propaganda leading up to the 2016 presidential election.

In response, Facebook presented Congress 3,000 Russian-purchased ads through 470 phony pages and accounts intended to exploit America‘s racial divisions.

Facebook said at least $100,000 was spent for this purpose, a mere fraction of its political advertising during the 2016 campaign.

This motivated the House Intelligence Committee to release a sample of Facebook ads the Russian government-affiliated Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg troll farm, purchased about issues like immigration, religion, and race, for and against presidential contenders Hillary ClintonBernie Sanders, Jill Stein, and Donald Trump.

More than 11 million people between 2015 and 2017 viewed these ads.

Moreover, Russia used Facebook ads to help Trump win Michigan and Wisconsin, and to exploit our racial and religious divides.

At the risk of being accused of re-litigating the 2016 election, it’s important to note the trolls did not disappear after Trump was elected.

Despite republicans accusing Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey of exercising blatant left-wing bias, Facebook has become a mecca for right-wing extremist posts, some pretending to be speaking for the left in order to repeat 2016’s success of dividing up the electorate.

One group that factored prominently during the 2018 midterm election season was America Progress Now (APN), a digital marketing firm associated with pro-Trump youth group Turning Point USA.

Perhaps you saw some of these posts:

Image credit: Facebook
Image credit: Facebook

Image credit: Facebook

These look like progressive.

They’re not.

They’re attempts to convince voters the two major parties are the same and the only way to free us from the “lesser of two evils” is to vote third party.

In 2016, many did.

A lot fewer did in 2020.

Facebook was aware APN was really an alias for conservative marketing firm Rally Forge but allowed it to continue its deception because Rally Forge did not apparently violate Facebook’s policies.

Sophie Zhang is a former Facebook employee and whistleblower who helped investigate the Green party ads.

She explained:

“There were no policies at Facebook against pretending to be a group that did not exist, an abuse vector that has also been used by the governments of Honduras and Azerbaijan. The fact that Rally Forge later went on to conduct coordinated inauthentic behavior with troll farms reminiscent of Russia should be taken as an indication that Facebook’s leniency led to more risk-taking behavior.”

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) did nothing to stop the behavior either.

Non-partisan campaign finance watchdog group Campaign Legal Center (CLC) filed a complaint against APN and sued the FEC to try an force an investigation into APN.

Yet last July,  the FEC voted to dismiss allegations APM violated federal law even after an individual named Evan Muhlstein accepted responsibility for the ads, blaming lack of proper disclosures and filings to “inexperience.”

Ann Ravel, FEC commissioner from 2013 to 2017 claimed Muhlstein’s admission was tantamount to “clear fraud” since he never disclosed to the FEC officials Rally Forge was behind the ads.

But Muhlstein’s claim was credible enough to convince FEC commissioner James “Trey” Trainor to state:

“This case wasn’t about a ‘fake political group … exploit[ing] Facebook rules … and hid[ing] spending from the FEC. In fact, APN was established by an unsophisticated individual trying to show his support for several third-party candidates, but he got tripped by the myriad regulations governing online political speech.”

CLC director of federal reform, Brendan Fischer, explained:

“This is an example of why disclosure is so important in elections: swing state voters who saw ‘America Progress Now’ ads promoting Green party candidates would’ve had no idea that they were the handiwork of Republican political operatives. The FEC’s job is to enforce the transparency laws and protect votersright to know who is trying to influence them, but the agency here failed to conduct even a minimal investigation.”

Zhang denounced the FEC for failing to notify Facebook about Muhlstein’s claim to verify he was responsible for the “America Progress Now” page.

She added:

“It’s quite possible that FB would have blown the FEC off. But many employees were upset over this case, and may have come forward if asked. I would likely have if I’d known.
“In the end, this is a story about Facebook, the FEC, and broken systems. Now it’s time for the FEC to prove that perverting justice has consequences.”
As the clock ticks away to next year’s mid-term congressional elections, we can expect to see even more trolls radicalizing Americans on social media and dividing us up further than we already are.
If they can pull it off, 2024 looks a lot more precarious.
Image credit: commons.wikimedia.org
Ted Millar is writer and teacher. His work has been featured in myriad literary journals, including Better Than Starbucks, The Broke Bohemian, Straight Forward Poetry, Caesura, Circle Show, Cactus Heart, Third Wednesday, and The Voices Project. He is also a contributor to The Left Place blog on Substack, and Medium.