Weeks after firing an internal whistleblower who called for Facebook to crack down on a massive network of fake activity connected to Azerbaijan’s ruling party, Facebook has removed more than 1,000 accounts and close to 8,000 pages.
Facebook linked the operation to the Youth Union of the governing New Azerbaijani Party. It said the accounts and pages were used to post comments that attacked opposition figures and independent media, and boost the country’s ruling party. This disclosure confirms what Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook data scientist, wrote in an explosive internal memo obtained by BuzzFeed News that said the company was ignoring manipulation of its platforms by political parties and heads of government.
On the day of her departure, she called the fake behavior in Azerbaijan her “greatest unfinished business,” and criticized Facebook for taking a year to investigate her findings. Last month, Facebook fired Zhang, and she posted the 6,600-word memo on an internal message board shortly before she left.
Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy, said on a press call Thursday that “Facebook identified this network after an internal investigation,” but did not cite Zhang by name.
BuzzFeed News was not able to ask a question on the call, but sent a follow-up email asking why it took the company a year to begin looking into the activity in Azerbaijan identified by Zhang. A spokesperson declined to comment on the record.
Guy Rosen, Facebook’s VP of integrity, previously dismissed Zhang’s work as only being about “fake likes.”
“Like any team in the industry or government, we prioritize stopping the most urgent and harmful threats globally. Fake likes is not one of them,” he said on Twitter.
Gleicher said the close to 8,000 pages used in the operation were set up to look like personal profiles and were
Facebook has banned the U.S. marketing firm that was behind a campaign to disseminate deceptive political content on behalf of Turning Point USA, a political advocacy group for young conservatives with ties to President Donald Trump.
Rally Forge employed people who used use fake names and profile pictures while commenting on content posted by other users or mainstream media outlets, Facebook’s head of security policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, said Thursday. The firm did that work on behalf of Turning Point USA and Inclusive Conservation Group, an environmental advocacy organization.
“They did that seemingly to create the perception of widespread support of their narratives by leaving comments on posts by media entities and public figures,” Gleicher said. He noted that the accounts used “thinly veiled personas,” such as tweaking real people’s names, to bypass Facebook’s filters.
Gleicher said Facebook is not penalizing Turning Point or Inclusive Conservation Group, though it’s still investigating whether other deceptive tactics were deployed.
“We have to take action based on evidence that we see on our platform and that we can clearly articulate and can describe and provide if needed,” Gleicher said.
He also repeated Facebook’s call for legislation and regulation to provide greater clarity on allowed online advocacy — and the company outlined broad suggestions for rules to mitigate influence operations, including greater transparency from platforms and sanctions on bad actors.
“There are broader questions about what constitutes acceptable political advocacy versus deception and where those lines should be drawn,” Gleicher said. “Those sorts of questions are exactly the reason why tackling influence operations is a whole of society challenge.”
More on the campaign: Facebook said it removed 200 Facebook accounts, 55 pages and 76 Instagram accounts tied to Rally Forge. Those accounts also spent just shy of $1 million on advertising, a figure that Gleicher