On the eve of the 2020 election, the most highly contested in US history, Facebook’s most popular pages for Christian and Black American content were being run by Eastern European troll farms. These pages were part of a larger network that collectively reached nearly half of all Americans, according to an internal company report, and achieved that reach not through user choice but primarily as a result of Facebook’s own platform design and engagement-hungry algorithm.

The report, written in October 2019 and obtained by MIT Technology Review from a former Facebook employee not involved in researching it, found that after the 2016 election, Facebook failed to prioritize fundamental changes to how its platform promotes and distributes information. The company instead pursued a whack-a-mole strategy that involved monitoring and quashing the activity of bad actors when they engaged in political discourse, and adding some guardrails that prevented “the worst of the worst.”

But this approach did little to stem the underlying problem, the report noted. Troll farms were still building massive audiences by running networks of Facebook pages, with their content reaching 140 million US users per month—75% of whom had never followed any of the pages. They were seeing the content because Facebook’s content-recommendation system had pushed it into their news feeds.

“Instead of users choosing to receive content from these actors, it is our platform that is choosing to give [these troll farms] an enormous reach,” wrote the report’s author, Jeff Allen, a former senior-level data scientist at Facebook.

Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesperson, said in a statement that the company “had already been investigating these topics” at the time of Allen’s report. “Since that time, we have stood up teams, developed new policies and collaborated with industry peers to address these networks. We’ve taken aggressive enforcement actions against these kinds of foreign and domestic inauthentic groups and have shared the results publicly on a quarterly basis.”

In the process of fact checking this story shortly before publication, MIT Technology Review found that five of the troll-farm pages mentioned in the report remained active.

The largest troll-farm page targeting African-Americans in October 2019, which remains active on Facebook.

The report found that troll farms were reaching the same demographic groups singled out by the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency (IRA) during the 2016 election, which had targeted Christians, Black Americans, and Native Americans. A 2018 BuzzFeed News investigation found that at least one member of the Russian IRA, indicted for alleged interference in the 2016 US election, had also visited Macedonia around the emergence of its first troll farms, though it didn’t find concrete evidence of a connection. (Facebook said its investigations hadn’t turned up a connection between the IRA and Macedonian troll farms, either.)

“This is not normal. This is not healthy,” Allen wrote. “We have empowered inauthentic actors to accumulate huge followings for largely unknown purposes … The fact that actors with possible ties to the IRA have access to huge audience numbers in the same demographic groups targeted by the IRA poses an enormous risk to the US 2020 election.”

As long as troll farms found success in using these tactics, any other bad actor could too, he continued: “If the Troll Farms are reaching 30M US users with content targeted to African Americans, we should not at all be surprised if we discover the IRA also currently has large audiences there.”

Allen wrote the report as the fourth and final installment of a year-and-a-half-long effort to understand troll farms. He left the company that same month, in part because of frustration that leadership had “effectively ignored” his research, according to the former Facebook employee who supplied the report. Allen declined to comment.

The report reveals the alarming state of affairs in which Facebook leadership left the platform for years, despite repeated public promises to aggressively tackle foreign-based election interference. MIT Technology Review is making the full report available, with employee names redacted, because it is in the public interest.

Its revelations

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By: Karen Hao
Title: Troll farms reached 140 million Americans a month on Facebook before 2020 election, internal report shows
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2021/09/16/1035851/facebook-troll-farms-report-us-2020-election/
Published Date: Fri, 17 Sep 2021 01:00:36 +0000

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