An undated handout screenshot image of the Daily Vine, an American-run Facebook page linked to Right Wing News, where they advertised a false story on the network. Ahead of the midterm elections, false and divisive messages on social media — once the specialty of Russian-linked operatives — are now increasingly being created and spread by Americans. (Handout via The New York Times)
When Christine Blasey Ford testified before Congress last month about Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual assault, a website called Right Wing News sprang into action on Facebook.
The conservative site, run by blogger John Hawkins, had created a series of Facebook pages and accounts over the last year under many names, according to Facebook.
After Blasey testified, Right Wing News posted several false stories about her — including the suggestion that her lawyers were being bribed by Democrats — and then used the network of Facebook pages and accounts to share the pieces so that they proliferated online quickly, social media researchers said.
The result was a real-time spreading of disinformation started by Americans, for Americans.
What Right Wing News did was part of a shift in the flow of online disinformation, falsehoods meant to mislead and inflame. In 2016, before the presidential election, state-backed Russian operatives exploited Facebook and Twitter to sway voters in the United States with divisive messages. Now, weeks before the midterm elections on Nov. 6, such influence campaigns are increasingly a domestic phenomenon fomented by Americans on the left and the right.
“There are now well-developed networks of Americans targeting other Americans with purposefully designed manipulations,” said Molly McKew, an information warfare researcher at the New Media Frontier, which studies social media.
Politics has always involved shadings of the truth via whisper campaigns, direct-mail operations and negative ads bordering on untrue. What is different this time is how domestic sites are emulating the Russian strategy of 2016.
This month, Twitter took down a network of 50 accounts that it said were being run by Americans posing as Republican state lawmakers. Twitter said the accounts were geared toward voters in all 50 states.
On Thursday, Facebook said it had identified 559 pages and 251 accounts run by Americans, many of which amplified false and misleading content in a coordinated fashion. The company said it would remove the pages and accounts. Among them were Right Wing News, which had more than 3.1 million followers, and left-wing pages that included the Resistance and Reverb Press, which had 240,000 and 816,000 followers.