Snopes, Facebook And Fake Accounts
: [Editor's Note on Oct. 18, 2020: Since the airing of this story, we received a request from The Epoch Times to respond to the allegations in this story. It provided this statement: "The introduction to this interview states that The Epoch Times was behind this 'sophisticated misinformation campaign.' The Epoch Times vehemently denies that it was involved in this misinformation campaign. The Epoch Times has no connection with The Beauty of Life (The BL), and the companies are in no way affiliated with one another. The BL was founded by a former employee and employs some of our former employees. However, that some of our former employees work for The BL is not evidence of any connection between the two organizations."]
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
On Friday, Facebook announced it removed more than 900 fake accounts, groups and pages, many with AI-generated profiles. Some of the groups had names like Americans for President Trump, America Needs President Trump and even Hispanos por Trump.
Behind the sophisticated misinformation campaign - the group Epoch Times. It's pro-Trump, but it is also linked to the Falun Gong, which opposes the Chinese government. Snopes, the fact-checking website, reported on The Epoch Times' misleading use of Facebook and Instagram last fall.
And we're joined now by Snopes' VP of operations, Vinny Green. Hello.
VINNY GREEN: Hi. How are you?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And reporter Jordan Liles. Welcome to the program.
JORDAN LILES: Hi. Thank you for having us.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So Vinny, I'm going to start with you. This investigation centers around a group called the BL, or Beauty of Life. And you found that it has extensive links to The Epoch Times. So remind us where The Epoch Times sort of lives in the media ecosystem.
GREEN: Yeah. Well, it's really far-reaching. Not only do they have a print edition that distributes pretty widely, but they have a very dominant online presence. They've really - have established a vast multimedia, multiplatform distribution channel and artificially, through advertising, boost their prominence. And it - so it's widely read and widely distributed. But it is this very fringe publication. And we've discovered that it's got some other tentacles that are reaching out into the media landscape and - one of which was this vast network called the BL.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I mean, their main page has more than 6 million followers on Facebook, and they have ties to the Falun Gong movement, which is a spiritual practice which the Chinese government calls a cult. And these fake pages and profiles had a lot of pro-Trump content but also anti-Chinese government, too. What were they pushing out?
GREEN: What we saw was an extreme amount of pro-Trump content. Almost exclusively what we were looking at on the BL was the amplification of pro-Trump media, usually created out of whole cloth. We saw some really peculiar things around creating fan pages for the individual family members in the Trump family - you know, fawning coverage, creating memes and video clips. And that content plays well on Facebook.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Some people have called this this sort of industrial-scale misinformation. Jordan, you reported on this extensively. What made you look at the BL group of accounts?
LILES: When we first started looking at the BL, the way that we actually even found it was the same account that we had been following, who previously led us to a Ukraine-run page, also one day early in October shared a post for the BL. And I had never heard of it, so I clicked. And then on every Facebook page, you can scroll down. And there's a page transparency button that lets you see where the page managers are that actually operate the page. And my first reaction to seeing that most of them were in Vietnam and then one of them was in Syria and other countries was that this very pro-America page was being operated largely outside of the United States.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Vinny, Facebook shut down The Epoch Times' mass ad buying this summer, but they didn't remove these groups and fake accounts even after your reporting went public. You pushed them on this multiple times. What happened, and how did they respond?
GREEN: Well, you know, this is probably the most disheartening of all of this because it really, I think, is emblematic of what's wrong with Facebook in particular and these platforms in general - is their inability to combat this stuff in a timely manner or kind of acknowledge it's even happening.
We identified these accounts in early October. And all of that time, as good reporters do, we are knocking on Facebook's door, saying, what is going on here? They said they spotted this network in July. There is resolution in December. What are they going to do about this type of election interference when people are trying to head to the ballot box? It's really concerning, and something has to change immediately.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Vinny, just briefly, Snopes and Facebook were partners with their third-party fact-checking program, but you left in February. Why was that?
GREEN: Well, there was a resounding response from our newsroom in late last year that it was no longer tenable to work with an organization that didn't share our values. From what we've seen, especially what we've seen since the last election, Facebook is not a partner of the news media. I do not believe that despite their outreach and efforts that it is nothing more than a PR strategy. We didn't think that we could best serve our readers by continuing a relationship that was what we believed ineffectual.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Vinny Green and Jordan Liles from Snopes. Thank you so much.
GREEN: Thank you for having us. We really greatly appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.