PH company banned by Facebook spread lies, used fake accounts

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED)  Facebook announced on Friday, January 11, it was banning digital marketing group Twinmark Media Enterprises from the platform for violating its policies.

Twinmark is the company behind Trending News Portal, the top website shared by former Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson, according to data gathered by Rappler. (READ: What is Mocha Uson's top source of news?)

According to Facebook's Head of Cybersecurity Policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, Twinmark organization has repeatedly violated Facebook’s misrepresentation and spam policies  through, among others, coordinated inauthentic behavior, the use of fake accounts, leading people to ad farms, and selling access to Facebook Pages to artificially increase distribution and generate profit.

“We do not want our services to be used for this type of behavior, nor do we want the group to be able to reestablish a presence on Facebook," Gleicher said.

Major takedown

The social media giant has removed 220 pages, 73 accounts, and 29 Instagram accounts as part of this takedown, the biggest single action it has done in the country to address what it calls “inauthentic behavior” in its platform.

This takedown follows an investigation which found that Twinmark was selling access and administrator rights to Facebook pages that they created, among them TNP Media which has 4.3 million followers.

Gleicher said their investigation into Twinmark began after they learned the company was selling admin rights to Facebook Pages it had created, in order to increase distribution and generate profit, which violates their spam policy.

“This prompted our teams to take a deeper look at a broader group of Pages and accounts associated with these users, ultimately uncovering a large network of Pages and accounts that were engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior, the use of fake accounts, leading people to ad farms and selling access to Facebook Pages," Gleicher added.

The investigation, according to Gleicher, began in November 2018, 11 months after Rappler's own investigation. 

Around 43 million accounts followed at least one of the Facebook pages that were taken down. Pages with the highest number of followers are:

An important step

Gleicher describes the Twinmark takedown as an “important step” and “a marker” of the increased focus Facebook has been driving against inauthentic behavior and the clusters of assets that “try to deceive people” in their platform.

He says that it is also one of the most significant takedowns that they have done in the world because in this case, they removed not just the violating behavior, they removed the entire organization.

It is very rare that they remove an entire organization, Gleicher says. “Often you’ll see organizations or individuals, wherein one of [their actions] may be deception but not others. Here we have a media organization whose entire business is driven by this type of deception.”

When they find an organization whose purpose is deception, Gleicher said they remove the entire organization, and not merely the cluster of pages and accounts associated with it.

After the removal, Gleicher also emphasized that they they’ll monitor and ensure that the organization can’t come back to the platform. “So if Twinmark Media were to try to return, we will be monitoring for that, and we will be removing it as they do.”

This takedown is one of the 20 or more that Gleicher’s team has performed over the past year. He says Facebook users can continue to see more work from them as they see more of this type of behavior.

The team’s work, Gleicher notes, is also very much global in nature, citing similar takedowns in the US, Brazil, Belgium and Myanmar.

“Our teams are continuously looking for this type of malicious behavior in the Philippines, in Asia, and around the world. And whenever we find this, we remove it from the platform.”

Behavior vs content

While Trending News Portal, one of the key properties of Twinmark Media, is also known for spreading falsehoods, Gleicher emphasizes that their takedowns are not based on the nature of the content on these pages but rather based on behavior.

“When we analyze this, we’re not analyzing whether the content violates our policies or whether the content is the type of content we’d remove. Instead we’re looking at behavior. And the behaviors here are the selling of the pages, other violations of our spam policies, and engagement in coordinated inauthentic behavior,” the policy head says.

Gleicher clarifies, however, that they do remove violating content but that it’s a separate process from removals based on behavior.

Content removals are typically done for hate speech, bullying and other abusive content targeting individuals or groups.

(A separate Facebook program with third-party fact checkers limits the circulation of content online. Rappler, a signatory to the International Fact Checkers Network (IFCN) is one of Facebook’s Third Party Fact Check Partners in the Philippines.)

Illustrating his point, Gleicher explains: “When you look at the samples itself [from the Twinmark pages], you’ll see that some of the content doesn’t look to be violating.”

Deception, whether private or government

The violation here, Gleicher said, was that Twinmark was “consistently, and in a coordinated fashion, concealing who is behind pages and assets, and using these techniques to boost popularity and to drive this content out.”

Gleicher also explains that understanding an organization’s intent is beyond their analysis. “We’re very cautious in our analysis of motive or intent. We have the ability to see the behaviors that take place [but] we don’t necessarily have the ability to understand what is in the heads of the people that are engaging in [coordinated inauthentic behavior.]”

While they realize that there is obviously a financial motive in Twinmark’s case, Gleicher says they haven’t analyzed beyond that to determine a further motive.

“What we’re focused on here is the behavior...It doesn’t matter who the organization is, whether they’re private or government, what country they’re for, and it doesn’t matter why they’re doing it. What matters is the behaviors that they engage in to deceive people on the platform,” Gleicher says.

The Department of Information and Communications Technology was also notified of the takedown, Gleicher says. But Facebook will not be recommending or suggesting any action determining if there are other steps that should be taken, clarifying that their role is to enforce their community standards.

Trending News Portal and Mocha

In December of 2017, Rappler ran a series of stories on Trending News Portal (TNP), a website that brands itself as a"digital news outfit", specializing in viral stories. Apart from viral content, bulk of its stories in 2016 are on President Duterte, among them questionable stories against his critics.

Then Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) Assistant Secretary Margaux "Mocha" Uson posted more than 500 posts linking to the site (trendingnewsportal.net.ph or tnp.ph) which has since changed URLs. This is despite the fact that early versions of the site had a disclaimer that said they can't vouch for the accuracy of their reports.

This isn't the first time Facebook has removed pages in the Philippines for policy violations. In October of 2018, Facebook has removed a network of 95 pages and 35 accounts, some of them pro-Duterte for sharing links to advertising click farms.

Based on data Rappler has collected through its social media monitoring tool called Sharktank, pages removed as part of the October 2018 takedown were part of a "network" that shared the same partisan content from the same websites. The pages also shared a number of hoax stories that Rappler fact checked as part of Facebook’s Third Party Fact Check Program.  Rappler.com

Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.

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