Social media companies have been aiming to control misinformation ahead of the 2020 election season in a variety of ways. While Twitter recently banned political ads from its platform, Facebook just announced that it has shuttered hundreds of fake accounts, groups, and pages. Many of these accounts seem to have profile images generated by artificial intelligence, and many have reportedly been used to disseminate misinformation and conspiracy theories.
As reported by Forbes, Facebook stated that the banned accounts and pages were linked to the “Beauty of Life” network, or “TheBL”, which Facebook said was linked to the conservative news publishing group, the Epoch Times. According to Facebook, Epoch Media Group has spent almost $9.5 million on advertising through many of the now-banned pages and groups, with many of the posts containing pro-Trump conspiracy theories. While Epoch Media Group denies the charges, Facebook has statted that it worked closely with independent researchers such as Graphika and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) to determine the nature of the accounts and pages before taking action against them.
According to Facebook, the accounts were removed for “coordinated inauthentic behavior”, purposefully misleading others about their identities, and for attempting political interference. According to CNET, Facebook said the accounts often posted content promoting specific political candidates and ideology, focusing on conservative elections, conservative policies, and strong support for President Trump.
Facebook published a 39-page report on the event covering many of their findings. One of the notable aspects of Facebook’s report was that many of the banned accounts were created with the assistance of AI. Facebook’s researchers state in the report:
“Dozens of these fake accounts had profile pictures generated by artificial intelligence, in the first large-scale deployment of fake faces known to the authors of this report.”
According to the findings of the report, the AI-generated images weren’t perfect, with details often giving away their true nature. Contiguous elements of an image, like a person’s glasses or hair, were often asymmetrical. Furthermore, background details were often blurry and distorted. However, these elements may not be noticeable at first glance, especially given the small image sizes of profile photos in a Facebook comment chain. Many of the fake profiles also seemed to have fake profile information and even fake posts, potentially generated by AI.
As NBC reported, Facebook’s head of security policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, stated that the behavior of the accounts is what gave them away as inauthentic and that attempts to use fake images and profile info don’t help shield the accounts from discovery. Gleicher stated the AI-generated images were actually making the accounts more likely to get caught. Said Gleicher:
“We detected these accounts because they were engaged in fake behavior. Using AI-generated profiles as a way to make themselves look more real doesn’t actually help them. The biggest takeaway here is the egregiousness of the network in using fake identities… What’s new here is that this is purportedly a U.S.-based media company leveraging foreign actors posing as Americans to push political content. We’ve seen it a lot with state actors in the past.”
Nonetheless, the independent researchers from Graphika and the Atlantic Council stated that the ease with which the bad actors were able to create so many images and give their accounts perceived authenticity “is a concern”. Facebook and other social media companies are under pressure to step up efforts to combat the proliferation of political misinformation, a task that will require staying technologically ahead of those seeking to spread misinformation.
Before Facebook had brought the accounts, pages, and groups down, the content posted by these entities reached millions of people. Reportedly, at least 55 million accounts had followed one of the 89 different banned pages. Most of the followers were non-US accounts. In total, around 600 accounts, 90 pages, and 150 groups were removed from Facebook. Approximately 70 accounts were also removed from Instagram.
The news comes just as Facebook is kicking off a DeepFake detection challenge, which will run through March of 2020. Twitter has also recently banned almost 6000 accounts its suspects originated in Saudi Arabia and posted purposefully misleading content.