Real protests from a sham account on Facebook

Page shows how effective influence campaign was at infiltrating activist circles

SAN FRANCISCO • Black Elevation appeared to be an organisation dedicated to fighting racism to the tens of thousands of people who visited its page on Facebook.

The group promoted events and coordinated activities in several cities. It messaged activists and asked them to spread the word. It posted videos and photographs that encouraged people to show up at protest rallies. It even advertised a job opening.

And it was all a lie. Black Elevation was actually part of an orchestrated political influence campaign, aimed at sowing divisions among Americans before the mid-term elections in November, according to Facebook.

The Black Elevation page, one of the most popular of 32 pages taken down by Facebook last month, demonstrated how an influence campaign targeting Americans has been far more effective at infiltrating activist circles than previously reported.

With 139,217 likes on its Facebook page, the influence campaign also showed an increased sophistication in understanding American culture and the use of technology, said Mr Jonathan Albright, a researcher at Columbia University's Tow Centre for Digital Journalism.

The creators of Black Elevation often used the colloquialisms of the activist community and relied on technology to mask their location, and may have even purchased fake followers to appear more popular.

Facebook did not identify who was behind the campaign, but Black Elevation mirrored previous efforts by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian organisation that tried to manipulate voters in the US before the 2016 elections.

The company said it had drawn some connections between accounts it removed last month and those operated by Russian agents in the past.

Facebook said the pages it recently removed had created roughly 30 real-world events since May last year. The Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, which analyses misinformation online and works with Facebook, reviewed some of the pages and events, though the Black Elevation page does not appear to be among them. It was not clear why it was not among the pages the Atlantic Council was able to review.

Facebook declined to comment on the Black Elevation page, and would not say why it had removed the page before the council reviewed it.

But following a trail of online breadcrumbs, Mr Albright detailed how Black Elevation leveraged tight-knit groups of activists in the US to gain a following and persuade people to participate in real protest rallies.

"It's clear from what we've been able to find that this account was meant to provoke social class divides and create tension in marginalised communities," he said in an interview with The New York Times. "They were mimicking the language of activist pages and, in some cases, just copying them to attract followers."

"I just can't believe it. I can't believe it was a false page," said Ms Carla Cubit, an activist in New York who shared the page's Facebook events on her Twitter account. "It seemed legitimate."

On Aug 12 last year, Black Elevation held rallies to remember the anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, an African-American teenager who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

The original pages organising the events have been removed from Facebook, but traces remain on other social media sites and public event websites that promoted rallies in at least three cities - New York, Atlanta and Memphis.

A YouTube video posted by the Memphis chapter of Black Lives Matter shows about a dozen people gathered in an outdoor park. The caption reads, "Black Elevation remembers Michael Brown in Ed Rice Park".

Mr Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said the behaviour of Black Elevation followed a pattern he observed with other Russian-backed influence campaigns. "They build these networks on the back of existing groups," he said. Once they persuaded several members of a group to trust them, they had a "stamp of approval", which let them extend their reach in the community.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2018, with the headline 'Real protests from a sham account on Facebook'. Print Edition | Subscribe