Social networking classes which invited support for UK political parties at the build up to the European elections were goals for fake news and polarising articles with hyperlinks into the far right, a Newsnight investigation has found.
Closed Facebook groups, whose contents can only be viewed by approved members, watched users participate and discuss content connected to far-right and possibly fake accounts, including some apparently US and Russian-oriented profiles.
The groups were not formally associated with any party.
Articles in the classes often contained abusive language directed at MPs.
The Brexit party told Newsnight:”We’re not conscious of this and we can’t spend all of our time tracking Facebook.
“If any Facebook team is using our logo or infringing our copyright, without our consent, and is acting in any way, we act to close it down as we’ve done and will do again.”
How did we track Facebook groups?
The content, administrators and history of the 30 largest and most energetic closed pro- and anti-Brexit Facebook groups were analysed.
The administrators of closed groups often vet fresh members with questions to ensure they hold views compatible with the rest of the group.
New Facebook principles, introduced after accusations the company enabled interference in elections throughout the world, have forced public pages to be transparent about who runs them who advertises about them. However, as closed groups are private, they are not as likely to be flagged up to Facebook moderators for rules violations.
Newsnight’s investigation found that the largest group, known as”Brexit Party – fans” (it wasn’t any official connection to the celebration ) was the newest incarnation of a page setup in January 2017 under the title”Libertarians and Chartists for Trump”.
The group was conducted by a Facebook profile page called”Make Britain Great Again”, containing links to the website MBGAnews.com, which in turn redirects to another site, RedPillFactory.
Red Pill Factory is registered in California and has been described by critics as offering a mixture of partisan and untrue stories on topics such as the yellow vest motion, immigration, and Brexit.
Since Newsnight contacted the site, it has removed some content, including a story claiming German authorities purchased prostitutes to have sex with migrants. There is not any evidence to support the narrative was authentic.
Media Bias/Fact Check, an independent website which rates the visibility of internet content, describes Red Pill Factory :”extreme bias, consistent promotion of propaganda/conspiracies, inferior or no sourcing to credible information, a complete absence of transparency and/or is fake news.”
In answer to our evaluation, a writer for Red Pill Factory reported that they would”deem the notion of’fake news’ to be somewhat subjective.
“[We] dispute asserts that the website peddled bogus information, but actually posts were often fact-checked,” the author said.
They added:”Persons trolling the site with fake articles or presenting incorrect, anti-Islamic (as opposed to anti-terrorist), or racist posts were barred from submitting future articles” and said an editor was dismissed for violating these rules. RedPillFactory has conducted articles profoundly critical of the stripes motion as of late – one contributor was sacked for promoting yellow vests.”
“Brexit Party – supporters” was closed down until the European elections, after a Sunday Times investigation into its administrators.
In reaction to this Sunday Times story, The Brexit Party said it would officially approach Facebook to demand the groups were taken down:”We have no interest in these people in any way, absolutely not.”
Possible foreign influence?
Meanwhile, additional closed groups continued to spread links to disinformation.
“We Support Brexit” closed group, which has approximately 3,900 members, comprised numerous articles from an individual who is apparently Russian. The consumer shared hyperlinks by News Front, a site the EU’s anti-disinformation East Stratcom Task Force has identified as a supply of pro-Kremlin bogus news.
The image related to the consumer’s profile appears to function as a former Russian Miss World and in all likelihood doesn’t demonstrate the individual supporting the account. The profile is completely in Russian, and the cover photograph features Vladimir Putin.
Newsnight attempted to get in touch with the consumer, but they didn’t respond.
The user accounts along with the News Front site formed part of a wider pattern of disinformation or polarising content with foreign connections being shared in pro-Brexit closed Facebook classes, which was shared and participated with by additional users.
NewsPunch editor Sean Adl-Tabatabai told Newsnight:”We’re an information organization that publishes information from many different different sources on a huge variety of subjects. Sometimes this consists of the BBC itself. To telephone us’fake news’ is libellous and damaging to our reputation.
“We don’t have any control over members of the public who decide to share our articles on any platform, such as Facebook. Right now, it is still their own prerogative to openly read and share things so long as they are not breaking the law”
The BBC has also attempted to contact the people who run News Frontbut has not received an answer.
Posts from a website named Brexit Betrayal News were also shared across a number of closed classes by a Facebook user that seems to be in the US.
Mr Dance quotes that the posts targeted 50,000 people who belong to groups such as”Brexit that the Protest” and”We Are Your 17.4 Million”.
As well as listing Brexit Party MEPs, the site shared links to the QAnon conspiracy that was popularised by fringe and alt-right bands in the united states.
The Brexit Betrayal News domain premiered in Chicago in April 2019. When contacted via the site, the user confirmed that the website was hosted in the US, but refused to confirm if they’re from the US.