Facebook has removed hundreds of fake profiles it has linked to the conservative group Turning Point USA for carrying out organized attacks on the site, including attempts to influence public conversations by flooding news articles with pro-Trump comments and misinformation.
The move was prompted by reporting last month in the Washington Post that found Turning Point Action, an affiliated pro-Trump group, was paying teenagers to post coordinated messages on the site, a violation of Facebook’s rules.
Related: Facebook announces plan to stop political ads after 3 November
In comments on news articles, paid users cast doubt on mail-in ballots, praised Trump, and spread misinformation about coronavirus. Facebook traced these profiles to an Arizona-based communications company called Rally Forge, which it says worked on behalf of Turning Point USA.
In a blogpost, Facebook said it had removed 276 fake accounts, including 200 Facebook accounts and 76 Instagram accounts.
Comments by the accounts addressed topics such as “Covid-19, criticism of the Democratic party and presidential candidate Joe Biden, and praise of President Trump and the Republican party”, Facebook said, adding that the efforts violated the platform’s policy against “coordinated inauthentic behavior”.
These fake profiles commented most frequently on pages of the Washington Post, Fox News, MSNBC, CNN and the New York Times, the report from Facebook said. The networks initially became active before the 2018 midterm elections and went dormant until June.
Individuals behind the accounts used stock photos to create fake profiles, many of which were removed by Facebook’s automated detection software and linked to Rally Forge. “Although the people behind this network attempted to conceal their identities and coordination, our investigation linked this activity to Rally Forge,” Facebook said.
Facebook said Rally Forge would be banned from the platform as a result. However questions have been raised as to why the company has not taken action against Turning Point USA, despite identifying that Rally Forge was working on the organization’s behalf. Turning Point USA is still present on Facebook, with more than 1.8m followers.
Turning Point USA said in a statement the allegations were related to Turning Point Action, an affiliated entity. “The mistake has been flagged with Facebook’s communication team,” it said. Facebook pushed back, saying there was evidence linking the two.
Turning Point Action was founded last year by Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA, a Phoenix-based non-profit that recruits college students to advocate for conservative causes. The group posts memes and videos on its social media pages that support Trump and other conservative politicians. Trump and his son Donald Trump Jr have also delivered speeches at Turning Point USA or Turning Point Action events, most recently during a June campaign rally in Phoenix.
The enforcement comes as Twitter and Facebook crack down on inauthentic political discourse ahead of the US elections in November. Social media firms have also struggled to rein in posts from Donald Trump, which have spread misinformation on a mass scale about voting.
Twitter, meanwhile, announced on Thursday that it had suspended 104 accounts linked to an Iranian effort to amplify debates over the shooting of George Floyd and other issues of racial justice in the US.
The platform said that in some cases, the accounts had been hijacked from their original owners.
Agencies contributed reporting