The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The moment when Facebook’s removal of alleged Russian disinformation became a free-speech issue

A Facebook event is listed for the counterprotest of a rally inspired by the Unite the Right demonstration last year in Charlottesville. (Facebook) (Facebook)

SAN FRANCISCO — Left-leaning political activists accused Facebook of censorship when the social media giant removed an event listing this week that it said was part of a new disinformation campaign with ties to Russia.

Facebook said it had to act quickly to disclose that inauthentic operators were behind an upcoming event in Washington to counter a white-supremacist rally inspired by the deadly demonstration in Charlottesville last year. “Resisters,” the page that created the event, was among the 32 pages and accounts Facebook removed Tuesday.

However, activists who had worked with Resisters said the counterprotest they planned against a far-right rally was legitimate — and that Facebook was harming their ability to combat the rise of white supremacy. The event, called “No Unite the Right 2 DC” and promoted by Resisters along with other left-leaning groups, was collateral damage in Facebook’s battle against disinformation, they said.

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.”

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The incidents show how Facebook’s fight against disinformation and other malicious actors is increasingly butting up against the company’s mission to be a powerful organizing platform for communities — and represents an unexpected twist to Facebook’s disclosure, which many had applauded. Internet activists often connect anonymously and use tools to conceal their identities — the very tactics that Russian operators have also used.

Facebook has shown a reluctance to censor speech, as long as that speech does not violate its policies, which are the subject of debate. Last year, under pressure after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville turned deadly, Facebook began banning individuals and groups who associated with the gathering, as well as an event page for the protest itself.

Facebook provided little evidence about why it deemed Resisters and the other pages inauthentic this week, citing security concerns. The company declined to identify the forces behind any of the pages and accounts it removed Tuesday, saying the company was not in a position to do so accurately. But Facebook did say that an account tied to a Russian troll army, the Internet Research Agency, had served as an administrator of the Resisters page for seven minutes. Another IRA account — disabled in 2017 — shared a Facebook event hosted by the Resisters page, too.

“Facebook’s decision to remove the event was about addressing the coordinated inauthentic behavior we identified and maintaining the security of our services,” said Facebook spokesman Andy Stone. “We ban hate organizations from our platform and are encouraged to see people using Facebook to stand up against white supremacy.”

Some lawmakers and experts were quick to attribute the activity to Russia, which also used Facebook, Twitter and other tech platforms to interfere in the 2016 election.

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Four co-hosts of the event who were contacted by The Washington Post said Facebook had gone too far in its decision to block a page that had the support of so many legitimate activists — and questioned whether their movement had in fact been infiltrated by Russia.

When Facebook became aware of the groups two weeks ago, executives weighed whether taking them down would hurt the ability of legitimate activists to organize, said a person familiar with the company’s thinking. They ultimately decided that if the event took place, the harm would be worse because the event would have been tainted by the potential Russian involvement — if that information became public, the person said.

Shortly after President Trump’s State of the Union address this year, Brendan Orsinger, a 36-year-old Washington-based activist, said that he heard from a woman named Mary. The woman, who from her profile appeared to be an activist in New York, had a simple request, he said: Would he care to join the Facebook group she was involved with, called Resisters, as an administrator?

He had been involved in coordinating protests on the night of the speech, and the name Resisters had a certain appeal. “If you have the name resist in the title of your page … in a post-Trump social media world, people are going to clickbait the hell out of it. It can gain a lot of followership really quickly,” he said.

Mary’s request didn’t seem like a big deal, he said. Becoming one of a handful of administrators would give him the ability to promote events and post to the page, which had more than 10,000 followers. As a self-described anti-fascist activist, Orsinger appeared to share similar goals with the ostensibly left-leaning group, which billed itself as a feminist and anti-fascist community. So he told Mary that he’d be willing to help.

Orsinger began posting information about causes and events over the next several months. He said that his interactions with Mary — he did not want to give her last name for fear of violating her privacy — seemed normal overall, and that he didn’t see “any ulterior motives or agendas.”

Screenshots of the Resisters page saved by the Internet Archive on two occasions earlier this year show it filled with feminist-themed memes on subjects such as female scientists, birth control and Meryl Streep.

But there were a few “yellow flags,” Orsinger added. For one, Mary did not want to meet in person or talk on the phone.

In late June, other administrators of Resisters created the Unite the Right 2 DC event page in response to far-right groups obtaining a permit to hold a rally in Washington in August. The administrators began to invite other left-leaning and anti-fascist groups to become hosts, including Millennials for Revolution, March to Confront White Supremacy, Workers Against Racism, Smash Racism DC and Tune Out Trump. The Washington Post spoke to four of these groups, in addition to Orsinger.

After Charlottesville's Unite the Rite rally, white supremacists hired Elmer Woodard to defend them

One organizer of the groups said that Orsinger’s presence as an administrator gave them a feeling of trust because they knew him personally.

Late Monday night, a member of Facebook’s government team contacted Orsinger via email, saying, “I’m reaching out to set up a time to discuss an event you are listed as a host of on Facebook,” according to a copy of the correspondence reviewed by The Washington Post.

The company sent a separate email to other activists the same night, explaining it had shuttered the event because it was “created by someone establishing an inauthentic account that has been associated with coordinated inauthentic behavior.” More than 3,000 people on Facebook said they were interested in the event or would attend before the listing was removed.

Orsinger and other activists learned that their page had been taken down only after news stories came out Tuesday about the purge. When he finally spoke to the employee Tuesday, he expressed frustration that the removal was done with such short notice. “For Facebook to do it without any consideration is just really disheartening,” said Orsinger. “It’s almost like Facebook has a disinformation campaign against us.”

Facebook offered to share a new event listing so that organizers could keep users informed. Nevertheless, they still plan to turn out at the White House later this month — and are trying again to use Facebook to drive interest.

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Activists were skeptical of Facebook’s motives. Some questioned whether the company could have achieved the same effect just by blocking the Resisters page, rather than the entire event. “They deleted an event, giving the organizers almost no warning, because they were under political pressure from losing 20% of their stock price,” said Dylan Petrohilos, an administrator for Smash Racism DC, which was a co-host of the event page. “They essentially made us into a political pawn.”

"This kind of behavior is not allowed on Facebook because we don’t want people or organizations creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they are, or what they are doing,” Facebook said in response.

Orsinger now said he was questioning everything about his interactions with Mary. But he said he felt angrier at Facebook than at her. “If Russian bots or Russian influence helped us amplify stuff, I don’t know how I feel about that,” he said. “Maybe I feel the same way Donald Trump feels about the help.”

Mary’s profile disappeared this week after Facebook’s latest sweep, Orsinger said, a vague note about how her profile was no longer available left in her place.