Steve Bannon has been outed for his involvement in running a network of misinformation pages on Facebook. Who could have possibly seen this coming.
Facebook has talked a big game about monitoring election misinformation, and yet the independent activist network Avaaz said it had to alert the company to the pages before it removed them for coordinated inauthentic behaviour. The group didn’t need an army of 35,000 moderators to figure this out, and yet Facebook consistently fails to spot the troublemakers that journalists and researchers with less funding and staff seem to keep spotting. As they say: makes you think.
Avaaz said that it alerted Facebook to the pages on Friday night. By that time, in aggregate, Avaaz says the top seven pages — Brian Kolfage, Conservative Values, The Undefeated, We Build the Wall Inc, Citizens of the American Republic, American Joe, and Trump at War — had collectively gained over 2.45 million followers. In some cases, Bannon and Brian Kolfage, co-conspirator in the “We Build the Wall, Inc.” fundraiser/alleged scam, were co-admins.
Avaaz campaign director Fadi Quran told Gizmodo that its team identified the Bannon ring by running an “influencer analysis,” keeping tabs on frequent guests on Bannon’s podcasts and pages affiliated with Bannon’s former “We Build the Wall” grift. Avaaz, which is comprised of 40 investigators and data analysts, has kept tabs on habitual misinformers and their coordinated sharing through custom software.
They noticed that the Bannon-related pages tended to publish content at the same time and linked to the Populist Press, an even more right-wing Drudge Report copycat trafficking in disproven election fraud claims. The pages avoided warning labels by laundering links through the Populist Press domain rather post the original URLs for stories Facebook had already flagged as misinformation. Avaaz says they’d previously alerted Facebook to a network of 180 Bannon-connected pages and groups which have been sharing misinformation.
“We’re a small team run with small donations,” Quran told Gizmodo. “If we can spot this stuff, a multi-billion dollar company with tens of thousands of employees focused on the election and disinformation most certainly can. We are tired of doing their job for them.”
Quran added that Avaaz has been alerting Facebook to its problems all year. “If 2016 was an accident,” Quran added, “2020 has been negligence.”
Last week, Facebook removed two videos posted to Bannon’s official page, including one in which Bannon suggested the beheading of Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray. CNN reported that the video had amassed over 200,000 views before Facebook removed it. Bannon’s page remains live, but Facebook’s content discovery platform CrowdTangle shows that his page immediately stopped posting on Saturday.
Avaaz’s findings beg the question of what’s even in Facebook’s war room — possibly a few dudes posing for photo ops, or a competent team lost in Facebook’s labyrinthian policy loopholes. Either way, the self-described honey badger doesn’t give a shit. “In 2016, Steve Bannon was buoyed by the Facebook algorithm and helped define the political narrative for millions of Americans,” Quran said in a statement shared with Gizmodo. “Over the last few months, pages and groups connected to him pushed ‘voter fraud’ and other misinformation content to millions. Now, he is seeking to further divide America and spread chaos in this post-Election Day landscape, again using Facebook. Facebook has finally acted after Avaaz’s pressure, but the question is: Why did the company not act earlier?”
Facebook announced ahead of the election that it would “work proactively to remove” content that “attempts to interfere with or suppress voting.” As for undermining faith in democracy after an election, though, Facebook has only said that it will remove “threats of violence” related to an election outcome, which resulted in the removal of a “Stop the Steal” page, which had gone viral before Facebook shut it down for inciting violence. Predictably, general charges that Democrats stole the election only seem to warrant a half-hearted “see the results” label, or nothing at all.
Quran said that Avaaz will continue to monitor voter fraud claims, incitements to violence, and, in particular, misinformation targeting Georgians during their contentious run-off elections.
Gizmodo has reached out to Facebook and will update the post if we hear back.