On Tuesday, Brendan Orsinger logged onto Facebook only to be surprised by a notification. It simply said a protest page he’d co-managed had been deleted from the platform. Orsinger, a 36-year-old who resides in Washington, DC, was one of many local activists promoting an event to oppose “Unite the Right,” a white supremacist rally that turned fatal in Charlottesville, VA last year, and would be descending on DC next month.
For several months, a coalition of anti-fascist groups, known as Shut It Down DC, had been organizing a nonviolent display against “Unite the Right 2 – DC.” A Facebook event was created for the protest by a page called “Resisters,” which is not part of the coalition, and where Orsinger served as an admin.
“I understand this may be surprising or frustrating,” Facebook’s government and politics outreach manager, Crystal Patterson, wrote Orsinger in an email that day, explaining why the page had been removed.
“We are reaching out to make sure you have the relevant information and understand that this has nothing to do with you or your Page,” Patterson wrote in the email, which Orsinger shared with Motherboard. “Later today, we’ll begin providing information about the event deletion to the approximately 2,600 users who indicated their interest in the event, and the 600 plus users that said they’d attend.”
Now, Facebook is being accused of censoring the counter-protest by deleting it. In an attempt to earn the public’s trust by moderating influence campaigns, it appears the company has incited even more bad will.
Facebook announced on Tuesday that anonymous actors had tried to disrupt midterm elections via a network of disingenuous pages and accounts—all of which Facebook removed and deemed “inauthentic.” But activists like Orsinger say the company suppressed a very real grassroots movement.
At the center of the debate is the event page, “No Unite the Right 2 – DC,” which Facebook deleted Tuesday morning. Activists argue the event has always been authentic. Yet Facebook claims it was promoted by agents of misinformation, and even showed ties to Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Kremlin-connected troll factory that meddled in the 2016 presidential election.
According to a post from Facebook’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos:
The “Resisters” Page also created a Facebook Event for a protest on August 10 to 12 and enlisted support from real people. The Event – “No Unite the Right 2 – DC” – was scheduled to protest an August “Unite the Right” event in Washington. Inauthentic admins of the “Resisters” Page connected with admins from five legitimate Pages to co-host the event. 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.
In a statement, Shut It Down DC said the Facebook event was created by Resisters, a page that ostensibly existed to share feminist memes, and garnered roughly 21,000 followers. (Facebook has since removed it for “inauthentic behavior.”) Facebook caught wind of Resisters because it was managed by a known-IRA account for seven minutes, and it’s unclear but possible that account also created the page.
But Orsinger says it’s not so simple—that Resisters seemed real because it parasitized the work of legitimate activist groups. This is a known device of disinformation campaigns, say experts like the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab, which Facebook consults on matters of platform abuse.
Orsinger was an admin on Resisters for several months. He was asked to co-manage the page by an existing admin called “Mary” whose profile denoted that she was a black woman.
“I can’t assume gender,” Orsinger told Motherboard on the phone, “but it seemed like I was the only cis white man as an admin on the page.”
Orsinger had contacted Resisters about co-hosting “Tune Out Trump,” a protest of President Trump’s State of the Union address last January. A few days later, Mary messaged him on Facebook to say congratulations about the event. When she invited him to be an admin, Orsinger wasn’t alarmed, since it’s not uncommon for groups to collaborate on each other’s pages.
Orsinger didn’t spot any red flags from Resisters. (For example, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab found several tells of Russian deception, such as grammatical quirks suggesting English as a second language.)
But at one point, Orsinger asked Mary to meet in person, which she deflected. “In my working movement, there are a lot of things you need to make space for—marginalized identities,” he explained, adding that at the time he thought she might have legitimate reasons for not wanting to meet up. “A lot of folks just want to be in the background.”
He also found it curious that he, a man, was asked to co-manage a feminist page.
“We’ve had a lot of different breaches of security,” Orsinger said, adding that outside groups have tried to infiltrate activist efforts before. “Our radar is up for that stuff.”
Then, Resisters created the event page for “No Unite the Right 2 – DC,” and it moved into local organizers’ hands. We don’t know which Resisters admin created the page, and Orsinger is fairly certain the event’s name was different at the start. After the page was transitioned to the coalition, Mary was never heard from again.
According to the group Smash Racism DC, which is part of the coalition:
The original event was created by the Resisters, in anticipation for inevitable protest during this highly charged anniversary. However, local DC organizers have done all the legwork and used the page for legitimate protest organizing and promotion. Specifically, local organizers put our own messaging, graphics, and videos in it. We did not promote anyone’s views except our own. The Resisters had no say in it. Nor did any sort of “Russian agent.” Facebook’s removal of the page in question is censorship against the real movement against white supremacy and fascism.
Organizers dispute Facebook’s characterization of their event as fake. “One of the Shut It Down DC organizers, Dylan Petrohilos, asked Brendan [Orsinger] if he could take over the admin for the event page. Since then, Dylan had been controlling the page,” Shut It Down DC told Motherboard in an email.
Resisters was a page “that had no real niche or mission or goal. It just created events. That’s not how you create legitimacy,” Orsinger said in hindsight. He now believes Mary was part of the disinformation campaign. Their tactic of permeating authentic civil movements, he added, “is a strategy that would be just as valid if it were from a Russian influencer or an organizer.”
Indeed, seeding chaos was probably the plan. But it’s hardly a new technique. Last year, Russia created hundreds of fake accounts and spent $100,000 over two years to infiltrate the Black Lives Matter movement. The IRA fabricated a social media campaign called “Blacktivist” to exploit racial tensions over police violence in black communities. Like Resisters, the Blacktivist Facebook account had thousands of followers who believed they were engaging with real grassroots action. Russian trolls also stoked unrest over the opening of a library at an Islamic Center in Houston, TX in 2016.
Elsewhere on Facebook, Russia has targeted dozens of other liberal and conservative movements. As part of Congress’ probe in election meddling, Facebook turned over a selection of alleged Russian ads targeting “hot-button campaign issues, chiefly among them race, immigration, and religion,” Gizmodo reported last year.
Since then, Facebook has launched a suite of tools to increase transparency around political advertising. Yet regular Facebook users remain vulnerable to the increasingly sophisticated ploys of malicious nation states. Part of this is due to tools being easily spoofable—those recent accounts used VPNs to hide their IP address, for example. But maybe a larger, philosophical problem is that Facebook has birthed entirely novel problems with no real solutions. While it’d be great if everyone’s grandparents could assess the probability of a page being cryptically masterminded by a Russian operative for political gain, that’s not going to happen soon. Which has left users with the unsolicited job of flushing out Facebook abuse by either falling prey to it, or being savvy enough to spot it.
“If I had to do it again, I would’ve touched base with [all of the Resisters admins],” Orsinger said.
“[Facebook] essentially made us into a political pawn,” Petrohilos told the Washington Post.
Facebook told Motherboard that it investigated the admins of Resisters after becoming aware of the page.
“We’re not taking any chances,” a Facebook spokesperson said in an email. “Normally, we wouldn’t release information until our investigation is complete. In this case, because one of the Pages created an event for next week, we wanted to act quickly.”
At 9:26 p.m. on Monday, Patterson sent Orsinger an email asking “to set up time to discuss an event you are listed as a host of on Facebook.” The same email was sent again at 10:16 a.m. on Tuesday morning, the day Facebook removed the event page—emails that showed “no expressed urgency,” according to Orsinger.
Later on Tuesday, Patterson sent Orsinger another, longer email explaining the takedown.
We haven’t been able to connect on the phone, but I did want to make sure you know that earlier today we removed a Facebook event that you are listed as a co-host of, “No Unite the Right 2 – DC”, because one of the Pages that created the event, “Resisters”, has been removed from Facebook because [it] was created by someone establishing an inauthentic account that has been associated with coordinated inauthentic behavior.
I understand this may be surprising or frustrating. We are reaching out to make sure you have the relevant information and understand that this has nothing to do with you or your Page. Later today, we’ll begin providing information about the event deletion to the approximately 2,600 users who indicated their interest in the event, and the 600 plus users that said they’d attend. If you are interested in setting up another event, we would be happy to include details about it in our public communications.
If you encounter any issues creating a new event or have any questions about the process, we are happy to provide you with support. Please let me know if you have questions, and if you’d like to talk about this in more detail on the phone, you can reach me at…”
The coalition has since created a new event page, called “Hate Not Welcome: No Unite the Right 2,” which is scheduled for Aug. 12 in DC. Its numbers have almost reached those of the original event, but organizers are still unhappy with Facebook’s action, suggesting that it could’ve blocked Resisters and let the event be.
“This is very similar to a lot of the ways that major corporations in capitalism work. Ignore the externalities and unintended consequences,” added Orsinger, who may be taking a break from Facebook now. “I feel like that’s what Facebook did here.”