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Facebook removes hundreds of fake accounts linked to conservative group

Facebook said it removed 200 fake accounts, 55 pages and 76 Instagram accounts from Rally Forge, a company tied to the young conservative group Turning Point USA.

WASHINGTON, D.C., USA — Facebook said Thursday it has removed hundreds of fake accounts created by a marketing company tied to the young conservative group Turning Point USA and Inclusive Conservation Group.

The social media giant said in a blog post that the U.S. company Rally Forge, an Arizona-based firm, created accounts which were activity centered around commenting on other people's content, specifically articles posted by news organizations and public figures. The comments ranged in topics like trophy or sport hunting, the midterm election, and praising President Donald Trump and the Republican party.

Facebook said it removed  more than 275 accounts created by Rally Forge. Head of Security Policy Nathaniel Gleicher said the "activity originated in the U.S. and focused primarily on domestic U.S. audiences and also on Kenya and Botswana."

"Although the people behind this network attempted to conceal their identities and coordination, our investigation linked this activity to Rally Forge, a U.S. marketing firm, working on behalf of Turning Point USA and Inclusive Conservation Group," Gleicher wrote in the blog.

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One account commented a false claim on a Des Moines Register post about mail-in voting saying "a dangerous amount of ballots will be lost or won't arrive in time."

The most common pages the fake accounts targeted included The Washington Post, Fox News, MSNBC, CNN and The New York Times.

"The most recent activity included creating what we call 'thinly veiled personas' whose names were slight variations of the names of the people behind them and whose sole activity on our platform was associated with this deceptive campaign," Gleicher said.

He added that the shift in tactics is likely due to the majority of the fake accounts getting caught by Facebook's automated detection systems.

Facebook said Rally Forge is now completely banned from the social media network, and it is continuing to investigate all networks that are linked to the fake accounts. The official Turning Point USA page is still active with more than 1.8 million followers.

The Washington Post reported that just before the page was banned, it was posting content and memes that were similar to Turning Point USA content. A recent post claimed, “No one is tougher on Russia than President Trump."

On top of removing the hundreds of fake accounts, Facebook said it has also readied new safeguards for the 2020 U.S. elections that have it better prepared to deal with candidates who prematurely declare victory or contest official results and the possibility of voter intimidation by alleged — and potentially armed — “poll watchers.”

The social network has already banned messages that promote the carrying of weapons to polling places or that attempt to organize “coordinated interference” with voting. It will also ban the use of “militarized language” in connection with calls for poll-watching. Under the new policy, which is not retroactive, the president won't be able to encourage supporters to be unofficial poll watchers as part of an “army for Trump,” as he said in a tweet this week.

The changes — less than three weeks before Election Day and with voting happening already — show how quickly social media companies must respond to existing and anticipated threats to the election process.

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While Facebook's investigation cited Rally Forge's work for Turning Point USA, the work was actually performed on behalf of Turning Point Action, an independent political action committee, according to a statement from the organization. Turning Point Action added that it will work with Facebook “to rectify any misunderstanding" about its content.

Turning Point Action was founded last year by Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA, a Phoenix-based non-profit that recruits college students to advocate for conservative causes. The group posts memes and videos on its social media pages that support Trump and other conservative politicians. Trump and his son Donald Trump Jr. have also delivered speeches at Turning Point USA or Turning Point Action events, most recently during a June campaign rally in Phoenix.

Messages left with Rally Forge and Turning Point USA were not immediately returned Thursday.

In all, 200 Facebook accounts, 55 pages and 76 Instagram accounts were removed. Facebook said the network had more than 370,000 followers on Facebook, and 22,000 on Instagram. While most of the fake profiles had posed as conservatives, Facebook said some pretended to be left-leaning in 2018.

Credit: AP
FILE- In this March 13, 2019, file photo Facebook, Messenger and Instagram apps are are displayed on an iPhone in New York. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File)

Twitter, meanwhile, announced Thursday that it had suspended 104 accounts linked to an Iranian effort to amplify debates over the shooting of George Floyd and other issues of racial justice in the U.S.

The platform said that in some cases, the accounts had been hijacked from their original owners.

The Associated Press contributed.