Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesman, said in a statement that the company “had already been investigating these issues” at the time of Allen’s report. “Since that time, we have formed teams, developed new policies, and collaborated with industry peers to address these networks. We have taken aggressive enforcement measures against such inauthentic domestic and foreign groups and have shared the results publicly on a quarterly basis. “
In the fact-checking process for this story shortly before publication, MIT Technology Review found that five of the troll farm pages mentioned in the report remained active.
The report found that the troll farms were reaching the same demographics targeted by the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency (IRA) during the 2016 elections, which had targeted Christians, African Americans and Native Americans. To 2018 BuzzFeed News Research found that at least one member of the Russian IRA, accused of alleged interference in the 2016 US elections, had also visited Macedonia around the rise of its first troll farms, though it found no concrete evidence of a connection. (Facebook said its investigations had also found no connection between the IRA and Macedonian troll farms.)
“This is not normal. This is not healthy,” Allen wrote. “We have empowered inauthentic actors to accumulate large following for largely unknown purposes … The fact that actors with possible ties to the IRAs have access to a large audience in the same demographic groups that the IRA is targeting poses a huge risk to the US 2020 election. “
As long as troll farms have been successful in using these tactics, any other bad actor could too, he continued: “If troll farms are reaching 30 million US users. With content targeting African Americans, It shouldn’t surprise us at all if we find out the IRA has a huge audience there as well. “
Allen wrote the report as the fourth and final installment in a year-and-a-half effort to understand troll farms. He left the company that same month, in part out of frustration that leadership had “effectively ignored” his investigation, according to the former Facebook employee who provided the report. Allen declined to comment.
The report reveals the alarming state of affairs in which Facebook leaders abandoned the platform for years, despite repeated public promises to aggressively address foreign-based election interference. MIT Technology Review is making the full report available, with redacted employee names, because it is in the public interest.
His disclosures include:
- In October 2019, around 15,000 Facebook pages with the majority of the American audience were selling out in Kosovo and Macedonia, known bad actors during the 2016 elections.
- Collectively, those pages from the troll farm, which the report treats as a single page for comparison purposes, reached 140 million US users on a monthly basis and 360 million global users on a weekly basis. Walmart’s page reached the second-largest audience in the US at 100 million.
- The pages of the troll farm were also combined to form:
- the largest American Christian page on Facebook, 20 times the size of the next largest, reaching 75 million American users monthly, 95% of whom had never followed any of the pages.
- the largest African American page on Facebook, three times the size of the next largest, reaching 30 million US users monthly, 85% of whom had never followed any of the pages.
- the second largest Native American page on Facebook, reaching 400,000 monthly users, 90% of whom had never followed any of the pages.
- the fifth-largest women’s page on Facebook, with 60 million monthly US users, 90% of whom had never followed any of the pages.
- Troll farms mainly affect the US, but they also target the UK, Australia, India, and Central and South American countries.
- Facebook has conducted several studies that confirm that the content most likely to receive user engagement (likes, comments, and shares) is more likely of a type that is known to be bad. Still, the company has continued to rank content in users’ news feeds according to what it will receive the highest engagement.
- Facebook prohibits pages from posting content simply copied and pasted from other parts of the platform, but does not enforce the policy against known bad actors. This makes it easy for foreign actors who don’t speak the local language to post fully copied content and still reach a mass audience. At one point, up to 40% of visits to US pages were directed to those that featured primarily non-original content or material of limited originality.
- Troll farms previously made their way into Facebook’s Instant Articles and Ad Breaks partnership programs, which are designed to help news organizations and other publishers monetize their articles and videos. At one point, thanks to a lack of basic quality checks, up to 60% of Instant Article reads were going to content that had been plagiarized elsewhere. This made it easy for troll farms to mingle unnoticed and even receive payments from Facebook.
How Facebook Enables Troll Farms and Increases Your Audience
The report specifically looks at troll farms based in Kosovo and Macedonia, which are run by people who don’t necessarily understand American politics. However, due to the way Facebook’s newsfeed reward systems are designed, they can still have a significant impact on political discourse.