Facebook called the removal of 559 political pages an action against “spam” but released no proof and refused to list the pages.
By Shaun Hair and Randy DeSoto
Early on October 11, Matt woke up to find his small business gone. There had been no warning, no smoke, no heat — but his business was now a smoldering heap of ash. Facebook had burnt it to the ground.
Matt has operated his small digital publishing business since 2015. He spends his mornings like most business proprietors: After waking up, he reviews his numbers and checks messages to ensure his livelihood is running smoothly and as expected. It’s undoubtedly a more peaceful existence than Matt’s years in Army intelligence. His time in the military left him disabled, so his ability to work at least part of the time from his computer is a blessing.
It’s a good day for Matt when numbers are up and messages are down. As is usually the case for young entrepreneurs, no news is good news, because that means there are no fires to put out. But on October 11, Matt woke to the fire of his nightmares.
Matt is an online publisher. His business depends on his ability to drive page views to his website. Like many in the mid 2010s, Matt found Facebook to be good place to share articles and keep people coming back day after day. In those early days, growing Facebook pages was much easier. And getting more people to follow his Facebook page meant more people would see his articles.
Matt uses his website to tell stories about the thing that is most important to him — American politics. And his rise in online popularity proved he was not alone in his views. His activism mixed with his tough guy persona — “Do I look like a snowflake?” is his slogan on Twitter where he goes by “Matt Mountain” — resonated with many on Facebook. By last week, Matt had amassed an impressive 1.8 million Facebook followers on his pages.
But in a moment and without warning, Facebook took them all away.
On this fall morning, as Matt began his early-morning check of his site, he was greeted with a notification from his Facebook app that read simply, “account disabled.” He was obviously worried, so he immediately called his wife, who helps run the site, and asked her if she could access her Facebook account. She could not.
Facebook had unpublished all of Matt’s pages. Every page was inaccessible — effectively wiped from existence. The 1.8 million followers Matt had worked to connect with were no longer a click away. The 1.8 million followers who over the last three years had chosen to follow Matt’s site could no longer read the stories they loved or comment on the page with their friends about what mattered to them.
Matt checked his records. He had received nothing from Facebook. No warning. No deadline. No ultimatum. With two simple words, many years and countless hours of Matt’s work were forever wiped from Facebook.
While Matt was scrambling to figure out what had happened, Facebook was announcing through a blog post that it had removed over 559 political pages and 251 accounts in a clampdown on what the company calls “inauthentic behavior” in the lead-up to the U.S midterm elections.
“Many were using fake accounts or multiple accounts with the same names and posted massive amounts of content across a network of Groups and Pages to drive traffic to their websites. Many used the same techniques to make their content appear more popular on Facebook than it really was,” wrote Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, and product manager Oscar Rodriguez.
Facebook’s pre-midterm purge included pages and accounts that Facebook described as “ad farms” that used the platform to earn money and “to mislead others about who they are, and what they are doing,” rather than engage in “legitimate political debate.”
It appears that Facebook had strategically briefed The New York Times and The Washington Post ahead of the removals, given that within minutes of Facebook’s announcement, both papers published lengthy pieces describing the purge that included screenshots of the pages, something that could only have been obtained before the pages were removed.
After the purge, Facebook provided media outlets with only the same few examples: The Resistance, Reasonable People Unite, Reverb Press, Nation in Distress and Snowflakes. Four of these pages were liberal, while one was conservative. When asked for a complete list of pages, Facebook has repeatedly refused to release it. Even knowing the names of these five pages, journalists visiting the page are greeted with a message “Sorry, content isn’t available right now,” with no ability to see the page, previously posted content or examples of alleged “spam” actions.
Facebook claims the purged pages fell on both sides of the political spectrum, and originally declined to say if there were more pages on the right or the left, but a Facebook spokesperson later told Axios that “the takedowns may have impacted more right-leaning hyper-partisan Pages.”
Because Facebook has refused to release a full list of the affected pages or any proof of alleged “spam” activity, The Western Journal has attempted to track down as many of the purged pages as possible.
Starting with the sparse list of pages that Facebook chose to release to media outlets and pages mentioned by individuals on social media, The Western Journal searched on Google which domains were most often shared by those pages. The Western Journal then found other sites with common Adsense and Google Analytics accounts.
These domains were then searched on on Google’s cache of Facebook to locate pages that shared links from that site. Pages which showed the message “Sorry, content isn’t available right now,” a sign that the pages had been unpublished, rather than completely deleted, were added to The Western Journal’s list.
That list of pages confirmed as having been taken down by Facebook is now totaling 220.
Of the 220 pages uncovered by The Western Journal, 67 percent are conservative or pro-Trump pages, 22 percent are libertarian or non-aligned, and 11 percent are liberal or anti-Trump pages.
Additionally, among the 147 conservative pages taken down, 26 specifically mention President Donald Trump or related topics like “MAGA,” “deplorables” or first lady Melania Trump.
Brian Kolfage, who ran Right Wing News’ Facebook page, sees the company’s purge of political sites as part of a “war on conservatives and a war on Trump.”
“It’s not by mistake, this happened weeks before the midterms,” contends the Air Force veteran, who was severely wounded while serving in Iraq.
“People are being punished for their simple beliefs — beliefs of freedom, beliefs of religion, beliefs on anything that differs from that status quo. If you have an alternate view, you’re attacked — physically, financially and socially,” he says.
“Now, it’s me, my family, and my young children in the line of fire,” Kolfage adds. “This isn’t the right to free speech I gave my legs and arm to defend. Three limbs wasn’t enough for some … now my livelihood is gone with it.”
Kolfage tells The Western Journal that he was in regular contact with Facebook, but was not told his page was out of compliance with the company’s rules before the purge.
Kurt Von Arnold, whose page IPhoneConservative (70,000 likes) was also a casualty of the purge, explained to The Western Journal that when he consulted with fellow page owners, a common thread emerged about Facebook’s actions.
“In the lead up to this coordinated removal of conservative pages, going back months before, all of us were required to verify our accounts and locations,” says Von Arnold. “This involved, under their direction, logging out of our accounts and then re-logging in using a code they provided, for each device used to access their platform.”
Von Arnold argues this drill was really a “Trojan Horse” to allow Facebook both to efficiently take down their sites and to prevent them from starting new ones from any of their known devices.
He recounted that after his page was taken down Thursday, he published a new one.
“Within a few hours I had a couple of hundred page likes and though the loss of my 70k audience that I had built up over 10 years organically, never paying for boosts or spamming or ad-farming or any of the other tactics FB claimed it was acting against hurt very much,” says Von Arnold. “I consoled myself that I was back in the fight and with hard work I could build that audience again.”
“That was a fundamental mistake,” Von Arnold added with a sarcastic tone. “The new page which was starting to move suddenly went dead. All interaction on posts ceased, post reach went to 1 or 2 people in each post.”
Facebook has been unresponsive to the Von Arnold’s request for assistance.
“This is malicious harassment and a form of gaslighting which I wouldn’t wish on my worst political enemy,” Von Arnold argues.
“Moreover it is proof positive, at least in my mind, of the persistent animus FB has shown to conservative pages on their platform.”
“I cherish the freedoms that have been bought so dearly,” he concludes. “I wanted to voice my concerns that those freedoms were becoming increasingly endangered. I started a page to give voice to those concerns and allow other to find their voice and Facebook punished me for it.”
Facebook’s purge of pages was not limited to last Thursday.
BJ Zeagler tells The Western Journal that her page, Donald J. Trump — President of the People, was taken down three weeks ago. (Because it had been affected before October 11, her page was not included in the previously mentioned list.)
Zeagler emphatically denies committing any violations that Facebook listed in its blog post last Thursday. The 74-year-old Nashville resident only ran one page, on which she posted articles from different sites, not owned by her. In other words, she made no money from her postings.
The Tennessean had built up 2,000 likes over the last 10 years, originally starting her page in 2008 as a pro-retired Lt. Col. Allen West page, in hopes he would one day run for president.
“It was a really good page. I worked hours on it (each day),” Zeagler explains. “I did what I did because I loved this country.”
She posted articles from sources that she trusted like conservative talk radio personalities Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin and Sean Hannity.
“It was really sad to me. They removed by page,” she laments. “They removed the names of everybody that was coming there. They don’t know how to reach me. I don’t know how to reach them. It was dirty, and they didn’t tell me they were going to do it.”
The Times reported that concern over Facebook’s political bias against conservatives inspired Brian Amerige, a senior engineer with the company, to write a post to his co-workers in August.
“We are a political monoculture that’s intolerant of different views,” he wrote. “We claim to welcome all perspectives, but are quick to attack — often in mobs — anyone who presents a view that appears to be in opposition to left-leaning ideology.”
“We are entrusted by a great part of the world to be impartial and transparent carriers of people’s stories, ideas and commentary,” Amerige added. “Congress doesn’t think we can do this. The president doesn’t think we can do this. And like them or not, we deserve that criticism.”
The Times related that since the engineer’s post went up more than 100 Facebook employees had joined him to form an online group called ‘FB’ers for Political Diversity,’ based on two people within the company who had seen the page, but were not authorized to talk to the media.
The day before Facebook announced its purge, Business Insider reported that Ameriage had left the company.
“I care too deeply about our role in supporting free expression and intellectual diversity to even whole-heartedly attempt the product stuff anymore, and that’s how I know it’s time to go,” he wrote in a memo to his fellow employees, announcing his departure.
Patrick Brown, editor-in-chief of The Western Journal, has called on Facebook to release the full list of the pages it has unpublished.
“If Facebook is deleting American-run political pages in run up to election, Facebook should release full list of pages affected, regardless if these pages were violating terms of service or not. Without that list we have no way to verify their claims,” he tweeted.
If Facebook is deleting American run political pages in run up to election, Facebook should release full list of pages affected, regardless if these pages were violating terms of service or not. Without list we have no way to verify their claims.
— Patrick Brown (@patrickgbrown) October 12, 2018
“In other words, if Facebook is going to meddle in election by deleting Americans’ political speech (right and left), they had better lay out all the facts, openly and transparently,” he said.
Although it is clear many of these page owners did violate Facebook’s prohibition against using multiple accounts, many of the owners say that once they were told it was a problem, they immediately stopped using those accounts and verified their single remaining accounts with Facebook. The owners also shared a similar complaint — that Facebook never told them that they had done anything so egregious as to have years of their work literally erased with no warning and little more than a vague, one-sentence explanation that raised more questions than it answered.
Even Facebook’s recent “war room” announcement referenced the company’s efforts to increase “accountability and transparency.” But the company has still yet to release more than 5 of the 559 pages that were purged.
The majority of the known pages suspended by Facebook were right-leaning. While there may be valid justification for all of Facebook’s actions, Facebook has not responded to The Western Journal’s request for comment or provided to any known media outlet a full list of suspended pages or any evidence that any of the pages had in fact violated any of the rules Facebook claims were the basis for their purge.
And to date, neither The Times nor The Post, the two papers who received the early scoop of the purge along with the five examples of purged pages, have called for the entire list to be made public.
Facebook’s refusal to release the whole list or any proof of any violation of terms of service has many questioning if Facebook is being honest about its intentions.
Rhett Jones with Gizmodo noted, “the fact that Facebook is keeping almost all of the details about this action under wraps may save it some short-term pain, but it just gives everyone’s imagination the chance to run wild.”
Back at his computer, Matt Mountain is trying to make sense of Facebook’s recent actions. He is convinced that Facebook’s actions have little to do with violation of terms and conditions. “They have an agenda and they are twisting their terms and conditions to pursue that agenda.”
Matt argued that Facebook is desperate to avoid possible antitrust attention: “They are in the hot seat over politics. They are worried about regulation. I think they are conducting security theater — in other words, they are pretending to do something.”
“Facebook can decide who gets elected,” Matt warned. “Their staff has joked that they can control the outcome of a presidential election just by where they deploy the ‘I voted’ badge, because that badge influences friends to vote.”
The fact that Facebook’s purge happened only weeks before the important 2018 midterm elections did not go unnoticed by Matt, either. “(T)hey wipe out hundreds of the top activists, real Americans who have been working in politics for years, just a month before midterms.” According to Matt, Facebook “wiped out” more than 60 million followers. The main Facebook pages of CNN and Fox News combined have only 46 million followers. “I don’t think staff at Facebook, who we don’t know and have zero transparency, should have that much power without regulation.”
One last note: Matt is a self-described liberal. His site is LiberalMountain.com. Matt’s content is vehemently anti-Trump and he depicted Republicans as Nazis. But Brown underlines a key point in a tweet directed personally to Matt about why The Western Journal, a conservative site, cares that Matt’s pages were deleted: “This isn’t a left-right issue, this is a free speech issue.”