Is the left getting played by Russia? Facebook purge exposes potential new tactics

The aggressive push by Democrats and left-wing activists for social media companies to combat Russian bots and trolls may have backfired, exposing potential foreign efforts to whip up political passions on their side. 

Facebook announced last week that it had yanked 32 pages from Facebook and Instagram because they were “involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior,” potentially tied to Russia. 

Among them was an event page for a -- very much real -- countermarch to a white nationalist march this weekend in the nation’s capital by the group responsible for last year's march in Charlottesville, Va.

Black Lives Matter DC, helping organize the “No Unite the Right 2 - DC” protest, says Facebook has now hurt their reputation by suggesting they could be linked to Russian election meddling.

Organizers told The Associated Press they have set up a new page for the event, which was being organized before the first page was set up, but fear the damage is done.

"Our participation may take a hit because people are trying to find out what's legit and what's not," organizer April Goggans said, adding that they've had to "prove we exist." 

Facebook said that “inauthentic” administrators of a page called “Resisters” were connected with those from other, legitimate pages who worked to drum up support for the protest.

“These legitimate Pages unwittingly helped build interest in 'No Unite Right 2 – DC' and posted information about transportation, materials, and locations so people could get to the protests,” Facebook said in a statement.

Andrew Batcher, an organizer for the Shut It Down DC coalition, said the event page created by "Resisters" was taken over and controlled by "a lot of real people doing real work." Batcher told The Associated Press that he hasn't seen any evidence that any administrator for the "Resisters' page was a "bad actor." 

Regarding the 32 total pages in question, Facebook did not directly link them to Russia, but lawmakers on Capitol Hill did. A spokesman for Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley said Facebook had informed his office “that a limited group of Russian actors has attempted to spread disinformation using its platform and that the affected groups are affiliated with the political left.”

“The most followed Facebook Pages were ‘Aztlan Warriors,’ ‘Black Elevation,’ ‘Mindful Being,’ and ‘Resisters.’ The remaining Pages had between zero and 10 followers, and the Instagram accounts had zero followers,” Facebook said. 

The New York Times reported that Facebook also detected coordinated activity around #AbolishICE -- a left-wing campaign for abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

The issue points to a broader difficulty social media sites now have in identifying Russian actors. While the intelligence community has concluded that Russia meddled in the election through online activities -- with a preference for helping now-President Trump and hurting his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton -- Russia’s meddling has not been limited to pro-Trump activities, especially this election cycle. 

And for liberal activists and Democratic politicians who see Russian meddling as synonymous with helping Trump, Facebook's announcement may amount to a wake-up call that both sides of the political aisle are being egged on by potential foreign meddlers. 

A Russian agenda of sowing discord in the U.S., regardless of political party, is not new. 

In February, Trump approvingly retweeted the vice president of Facebook ads, Rob Goldman, who had written that the majority of Russian spending on ads occurred after the 2016 election, and that swaying the election was not the main goal of those ads.

Goldman, however, went on to clarify that “the Russian campaign was certainly in favor of Trump” and said his point was that the misinformation campaign was “ongoing.”

The New York Times reported that Russia used Facebook groups for a wide range of causes, including groups such as United Muslims of America, Blacktivist and Secured Borders.

“Racism won, Ignorance won, Sexual assault,” one ad by a group called BM said. “STOP TRUMP! STOP RACISM! JOIN THE PROTEST at Union Sq. Saturday 12 PM” 

Meanwhile, with the president still playing clean-up after appearing to initially accept Vladimir Putin's denial of election meddling during their summit last month, the administration is making clear they accept the prior U.S. intelligence findings -- and take the threat seriously. 

At a White House press briefing last Thursday, officials warned that a disinformation campaign from Moscow is ongoing. 

TRUMP OFFICIALS SOUND ALARM ON RUSSIAN MEDDLING, VOW TO FIGHT BACK 

“We continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said.

"A single attack can have widespread and cascading consequences. ... It's not just risk to prosperity, privacy, and infrastructure," Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said. "Our democracy itself is in the crosshairs."

Fox News’ Brooke Singman and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

 

Adam Shaw is a reporter covering U.S. and European politics for Fox News.. He can be reached here.