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Facebook closes network of accounts and pages affiliated with Roger Stone for manipulation

The longtime Trump friend and former campaign adviser used fake accounts and other deceptive tactics to manipulate public debate, the company said

Roger Stone, longtime adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Facebook took down a network of more than 100 pages and accounts on Wednesday it said was affiliated with felon and former Republican operative Roger Stone for “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” taking the company’s campaign against disinformation closer to the heart of the nation’s political establishment.

The offending activity on Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram dated as far back as 2015 but was particularly active during the 2016 presidential election season, when Stone was advising Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and in 2017, as federal investigators were scrutinizing his activities.

Facebook officials said Stone, a longtime friend of Trump’s, used fake accounts and other deceptive measures to manipulate public debate. In at least a small number of occasions, Stone also drew attention to posts made by anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, which at the time was publishing damaging Democratic Party emails originally stolen by Russian hackers, the company said.

The action comes at a time when several Silicon Valley companies have gotten more aggressive in enforcing their policies against disinformation, hate speech and other problematic content — even when that involves action against President Trump or people close to him. The moves have revived allegations by conservatives that technology companies and their mostly liberal leadership are squelching conservative voices and ideas ahead of the November election, though these critics have not provided systematic evidence for their claims.

Democrats, civil rights leaders and independent researchers, meanwhile, have argued that technology companies have not done nearly enough to protect democracy from disinformation and hate speech on their platforms, and they have singled out Facebook as particularly problematic for what they call lax policies and enforcement against problematic content.

Nathaniel Gleicher, head of security policy for Facebook, said that Stone’s personal accounts were among 54 Facebook accounts, 50 Facebook pages and four Instagram accounts closed Wednesday for policy violations. Of Stone’s personal accounts, Gleicher said, “We saw them deeply enmeshed in the activity here.”

Gleicher added that the action was driven by numerous violations against Facebook’s policy against “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” not the political views expressed through the accounts affiliated with Stone.

Roger Stone sentenced to three years and four months in prison, as Trump predicts ‘exoneration’ for his friend

Stone, who has described himself as a “dirty trickster,” issued a statement Wednesday evening disputing Facebook’s claim that he used fake accounts or engaged in other types of online manipulation, saying, “The reasons for this extraordinary act of censorship which Facebook and Instagram give is entirely fabricated, totally lacking in any proof and part of a larger effort to censor supporters of the President, Republicans and conservatives on social media platforms.”

Facebook’s report on its takedown of the Stone network said, “The Page admins and account owners posted about local politics in Florida, Roger Stone and his Pages, websites, books, and media appearances, a Florida land and water resources bill, the hacked materials released by WikiLeaks ahead of the US 2016 election, candidates in the 2016 primaries and general election, and the Roger Stone trial."

Among the posts flagged by Facebook as misleading was one that said, “What ? Hillary Clinton gets a pass from the FBI but the Democrats want the FBI to investigate Roger Stone?" An account used the misleading name “President Bernie Sanders," the company said.

The network affiliated with Stone had about 260,000 followers on Facebook and 61,500 on Instagram, and it spent up to $308,000 for advertisements. The network had extensive connections with one affiliated with the Proud Boys, an extremist group banned by Facebook for previous violations that had sought to reestablish its presence on the platform, according to Gleicher.

The network came to light after several news organizations, including The Washington Post, petitioned for public release of search warrants used by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in his investigation into allegations of improper contact between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. Information in the warrants led to the accounts affiliated with Stone and his associates, Gleicher said.

Network analysis firm Graphika also investigated the Stone network, finding in a report released Wednesday that it engaged in coordinated harassment of political opponents and critics and sought to give the impression of significant online public support for Stone, including during his trial.

Also Wednesday, Facebook announced the takedown of three other networks that were primarily active in Ukraine and Latin America. Some were affiliated with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, though Facebook said it was not clear if he had any direct role in the accounts.

“At a high level, this entire takedown marks a reckoning that politicians around the world also use information operations to influence domestic and local issues,” said Camille Francois, chief innovation officer for Graphika.

Though most of the deceptive activity unfolded in 2016 and 2017, a small number of assets were still active this year. Few of the posts ever received much engagement, with the exception of those that came from Stone’s own accounts on Facebook and Instagram.

Many of the accounts active in the network bore hallmarks of falsity, including the use of stock photos or other images borrowed from the Web, according to a report by Graphika. For instance, an account claiming to be based in Santa Monica, Calif., made its profile picture a shot of a YouTube beauty influencer. Another account used a photo of Tamar Khomasuridze, the United Nations Population Fund’s adviser for sexual and reproductive health based in Istanbul.

Stone, a Trump confidant who was convicted in November of witness tampering and lying to Congress, is due to begin a 40-month prison term next week.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, in a ruling last month, delayed the deadline for him to report to federal prison by two weeks. He had asked to put off serving the sentence until September, citing concerns about the coronavirus.

Stone, 67, again on Monday asked to postpone the date on which he must surrender, filing an emergency appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The appeals court gave the government until Thursday to respond to the request. Stone contends that his age and underlying health problems make him acutely vulnerable to the virus

Seven inmates and two members of staff have tested positive at FCI Jesup, the medium-security prison in Georgia where he is required to report, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons website. Trump has strongly suggested he will pardon the longtime GOP operative, recently retweeting a post that said, “IT’S TIME TO #PardonRogerStone.”