Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne said in a statement that the company was “already investigating the matter” at the time of Allen’s report. “Since then, we have formed teams, developed new policies and collaborated with industry colleagues to address these networks. We have taken aggressive enforcement action against such foreign and domestic inhumane groups and released results on a quarterly basis.”
In the process of verifying this story shortly before publication, the MIT Technology Review found that five of the troll-farm pages mentioned in the report were active.
The report found that during the 2016 election, troll farms were targeted by the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency (IRA) in a single demographic group, targeting Christians, black Americans, and Native Americans. An investigation by BuzzFeed News in 2018 found that at least one member of Russia’s IRA, accused of allegedly interfering in the 2011 US election, visited Macedonia in the run-up to the emergence of his first troll farm, although it did not find specific evidence of a connection. (Facebook says its investigations did not establish a link between the IRA and the Macedonian troll farm.)
“It simply came to our notice then. It’s not healthy, “Allen wrote. “We have empowered unscrupulous actors to garner huge followers for largely unknown purposes … The fact that actors with potential ties to the IRA have access to huge audiences in the same demographic group targeted by the IRA poses a huge risk to the United States.”
As long as troll farms have had success using these techniques, as any other bad actor can, he continued: “If troll farms reach 30 million U.S. users with African American targets, we wouldn’t be surprised at all. The IRA currently has a large audience. ”
Allen wrote the report as the fourth and final installment of a year-and-a-half-long effort to understand train farms. According to a former Facebook employee who provided the report, he left the company the same month out of frustration that the leadership had “effectively ignored” his research. Allen declined to comment.
The report reveals alarming situations where Facebook leadership has left the platform year after year, despite repeated public promises to deal with foreign-based electoral interference. MIT Technology Review is providing the full report, the names of the employees have been rescheduled, as it is in the public interest.
The release includes:
- As of October 2019, about 15,000 Facebook pages of the majority of U.S. audiences are moving out of Kosovo and Macedonia, the worst actors known during the 2016 election.
- Collectively, those troll-farm pages যা which the report considers a single page for comparative purposes পৌঁ have reached 140 million U.S. users per month and 360 million weekly users worldwide. Walmart’s page reached the second largest U.S. audience at 100 million.
- Troll farm pages have also been merged:
- Facebook’s largest Christian American page is 20 times larger than the next largest – reaching 5 million monthly US users, with 5% never following a page.
- Facebook’s largest African-American page has reached three million million monthly US users, three times as large as the next largest, with 5% never following a page.
- Facebook’s second-largest Native American page has reached 1,000,000 monthly users, 90% of whom have never followed a page.
- The fifth largest female page on Facebook has reached monthly million million US users, 90% of whom have never followed a page.
- Troll farms primarily affect the United States but also target the United Kingdom, Australia, India, and Central and South American countries.
- Facebook has conducted multiple surveys that confirm that users are more likely to get busy (likes, comments and shares) in a type that is known to be bad. Nevertheless, the company continues to rank the content in the user’s newsfeed which will get the maximum engagement.
- Facebook prohibits pages from posting just copy-pasted content from other parts of the platform but does not enforce policies against known bad actors. This makes it easier for foreign actors who do not speak the local language to post fully copied content and still reach a large audience. At one point, about 0% of U.S. pages were visited by people who initially showed obsolete content or elements of limited originality.
- Troll Farms previously entered Facebook’s Instant Articles and Ad Breaks Partnership program, which was designed to monetize news articles and other publishers’ articles and videos. At one point, thanks to a lack of basic quality checks, about 60% of the text of the instant article was going to content that was stolen from somewhere else. As a result, troll farms are not easily overlooked, even accepting payments from Facebook.
How Facebook enables troll farms and increases their audience
The report looks specifically at Kosovo and Macedonia-based troll farms, run by people who do not necessarily understand American politics. Yet the way Facebook’s newsfeed reward system is designed can still have a significant impact on political discourse.