Some days, it seems like any number of topics might lead The Interface
. Other days, nearly every major outlet
in our orbit writes
a version of the same story. Today was one of the latter: Facebook’s removal of probably-Russian disinformation has tripped up scores of real-life American activists, causing legitimate protests to be removed from the service, and we’re only beginning to consider the implications.
The activists were caught up in Facebook’s announcement earlier this week that it had removed 32 pages, with more than 290,000 followers
, after discovering that they were part of a secret campaign to influence American politics. Facebook reported at the time that these accounts were harder to find than the Russian agents of the 2016 election campaign. The people who created them took creative steps to make their accounts look authentic. It’s one reason why Facebook can’t say definitively that the current influence campaign is Russian in origin, though there are strong signals that it is.
One way fake accounts can look authentic is by associating with real ones. According to activists in the above-linked stories, that’s just what happened here. When Facebook discovered the subterfuge, it removed public events created by the fakers, even though thousands of Americans had registered to attend.
You can understand why Facebook would remove events and posts that had been created as part of a mind-warping influence campaign — and you can also probably understand why protesters are so upset. Here’s Tony Romm, Elizabeth Dwoskin and Eli Rosenberg in the Post
Facebook has “delegitimized our whole event — and all the work that folks across the D.C. area have put a lot of time and effort into,” said Caleb-Michael Files, an organizer of the March to Confront White Supremacy, a group that was organized after the Charlottesville protests, and a co-host of the counterprotest event page. He said he was much angrier at the social network than at Russia. “Russians might have been there, but Russians are not creating and invoking these feelings. These are real feelings, not Internet-created feelings.”
At TechCrunch, Taylor Hatmaker has the story of Andrew Batcher
, a Washington-based activist who’s part of an anti-hate group called Shut It Down DC. Batcher’s group became a co-host of a planned protest of the sequel to last year’s deadly Unite the Right rally, which is scheduled for later this month. The event was created by someone who was hiding their identity, but Batcher’s group filled it with legitimate posts:
“When we started organizing we talked about making a Facebook page and saw that this already existed,” Batcher said. “It happens pretty regularly in DC knowing how many major events take a place here.
“We asked to be made co-hosts of the event and we put our stuff up on it basically,” Batcher said. That included video calls to action, photos and other content, including the event description. “Everything that was taken down was ours.”
As a strategy for sowing chaos, fake events appear to be every bit the equal of fake news. As Sam Woolley, director of digital intelligence at the think tank Institute for the Future, asked the Journal
: “What’s real grass-roots activity versus fake grass-roots activity?” he asked.
Five months ago, Charlie Warzel wrote of the threat of an Infocalypse
: a moment when fact can no longer reliably, separated from fiction. A world in which every protest comes under suspicion of having been organized by shadowy, unseen forces would seem to herald the arrival of such a moment. As Kevin Roose put it in the Times:
A side effect of the disinformation campaigns is that they make social media as a whole seem inherently untrustworthy, and give fodder to those who want to cast doubt on the legitimacy of authentic movements. Already, some partisans have adopted the tactic of sowing doubt about internet-based movements by painting their opponents as Russian trolls or agents of a foreign-influence campaign.
This type of suspicion appears likely to grow, as influence campaigns get harder and harder to distinguish from authentic activity.
For activists, there are clear lessons to be learned: Be careful whose online protests you promote. Insist on a video chat with that new suspiciously eager protester who wants you to be an administer on their page. When they tell you they’re an American, ask to see the receipts.
For Facebook, the evolution of events into a major new attack surface has generated another thicket of difficult choices. Remove events and their related posts too aggressively and you’re stifling the speech you have promised to protect; be too lax in your enforcement and invite regulation and the continued decline of democracy. And whichever way you lean on a given day, loud voices will be there to tell you that you’re doing it all completely wrong.
Fake news can sow division and make you doubt the legitimacy of the articles you’re reading. Fake events goes a step further, making you doubts the motives of everyone around you. They distract you from your objective and sap your energy. As a weapon of disinformation, they can be devilishly effective.
I started writing a daily newsletter last year in part because I wanted to see how disinformation would evolve for this year’s midterm elections. The emergence of fake events as the new fake news represents a significant new mutation. And it’s not clear that any of us are prepared for what comes next.