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Impact Of Facebook’s False Posts Is Difficult To Measure

Demonstrators rally near the White House Sunday on the anniversary of the Charlottesville "Unite the Right" rally.
Demonstrators rally near the White House Sunday on the anniversary of the Charlottesville "Unite the Right" rally.
Credit Jacquelyn Martin / AP
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Many groups organizing counter-protests to last weekend’s Unite the Right 2 rally used Facebook event pages to build attendance.

The Shut It Down D.C. coalition was among them. But Facebook took down its page for being part of “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” according to a company news release last month.

The problem is that Shut It Down D.C. was as authentic as protests get.

“It’s just very strange that they took down an event that we are organizing on the ground. That is a real event,” said activist David Robin in an interview several days before the protests.

Robin said his group, Millennials For Revolution, was one of 15 to 20 groups uniting to organize the Shut It Down D.C. counter-protests.

Facebook also took down a page posted by the protest group Resisters. The company said the Resisters page had a connection to the Internet Research Agency (IRA) based in St. Petersburg, Russia. IRA is believed responsible for malign influence operations during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The Resisters-IRA connection? An IRA account co-hosted the Resisters page for seven minutes during the lifetime of the page.

Fake pages promoting a real event

Resisters reached out to five coalition groups organizing counter-protests. All co-hosted its page. But because IRA also co-hosted the page, however briefly, Facebook said in its news release that the coalition “unwittingly helped build interest” in the event.

But the interest was real.

Mark Lance of Shut It Down D.C. said the protests had been planned since June, when white supremacists announced they would hold Unite the Right 2 in Washington, D.C.

The initial planning, Lance said, took place off the Internet, through personal networks of activists.

“Most of the planning was done in those kind of spaces,” Lance said. “Over the years you get to know each other.”

Activists created a new Facebook event page and continued to organize the counter-protests. The number of people who indicated they would attend ultimately approached the number on the page that had been taken down.

The impact of fake Facebook event pages on organizing efforts wasn’t clear at Sunday’s event. Thousands of counter-protesters vastly outnumbered the approximately two dozen white supremacists who showed up for Unite the Right 2.

“With Facebook events, you know, you never know if the amount that’s saying they’re going, or interested, are actually going to come,” David Robin of Shut It Down D.C., said, adding, the real work of activism takes place offline.

The clearest impact of the Facebook take-down episode is that it created some confusion among organizers and would-be protesters, which may have been the intention of whoever posted the fake event pages.

“Why’d [Facebook] make it look like we were, you know, duped by Russian hackers?,” Robin said. “I don’t know. I think the whole thing was misrepresented. And it is unfair. And, you know, really unfortunate that a lot of the media I saw [were] calling it a fake event which is a hundred percent not true.”

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