Felicia Cravens looks forward to the time each day when she can log into her preferred pro-Trump Facebook groups and see what people have been sharing. Cravens has been active in conservative circles since she founded the Houston Tea Party Society in 2009, but her interest in Trump groups such as Vote Trump Only — The American Party Rising isn’t to participate in the discussions.
Instead, Cravens goes hunting for fake profiles posting outlandish stories, overseas spammers trying to trick Americans with fake news, and other forms of misinformation targeting her fellow conservatives.
Cravens posts what she finds to her Facebook page, Unfakery, and also does a regular “Troll Hunt” livestream where she tries to teach people how to spot fake accounts and content. Her livestream last week was her most important reveal yet: Cravens detailed how she and a small group of amateur debunkers uncovered a network of more than 100 fake Facebook accounts spreading pro-Trump content on groups and on their profiles.
“I want people to be skeptical, I want people to think about what they interact with online,” she said as she showed how the automated accounts post nonsensical comments on one another’s profiles and share content in groups in order to generate engagement from real people.
“When you have these bots sharing content into groups that nobody's moderating ... something is happening to people. This info does not just sit there in a void. It has impact, it makes an impression on people.”
BuzzFeed News examined the accounts and sent Facebook links to 27 of the profiles with a request for comment. Shortly after receiving the list of profiles, the company removed 24 of them from its platform.
“We thank you for bringing these reports to our attention. We removed them as soon as we investigated,” said Pete Voss, a Facebook spokesperson, in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “We encourage our community to report anything they see that they don’t think should be in Facebook, so we can take swift action.”
The three accounts that Facebook did not remove had the same automated sharing patterns as the ones it did, and the remaining profiles were also filled with nonsensical comments posted by other bots in the network. In addition, Facebook failed to identify the roughly 80 other bot accounts that frequently interacted with the profiles it did remove.
The company declined to comment on why it didn't ban those three accounts at first, and why it did not identify and remove additional bots in the network. (Facebook subsequently removed those three accounts, and said it was reviewing other reports submitted by Unfakery.)
When told that Facebook didn’t initially ban all 27 accounts, and that it didn’t detect obvious bots interacting with the profiles it did remove, Cravens joked in a message that, “I left my shocked face somewhere around here…”
Cravens said she frequently reports fake accounts to Facebook only to have the company decline to ban them, as in this example. So her weekly livestreams are a way to pressure Facebook to do better, as well as to teach people how to spot fakes.
“That’s the only way I know to make change: If you shame these companies on social media they tend to respond faster than if you go through [official] channels,” she said.
Cravens’ small but growing group stands out among the ranks of professional and amateur debunkers for its links to conservative politics. More media organizations than ever before are engaged in fact-checking and debunking. But some of the most prominent, such as Snopes and PolitiFact, are, fairly or unfairly, frequently dismissed as biased by conservatives. Liberal groups such as Media Matters for America are also heavily involved in efforts to track and debunk online misinformation.
Meanwhile, the Weekly Standard is the lone American conservative outlet working as a third-party fact-checking organization with Facebook to stop false content from spreading on its platform.
Cravens started teaching people to spot fakes last fall after becoming frustrated with seeing those in her personal and political circles share questionable content. Now the former tea party activist works with fellow conservatives and those of other political leanings to help people spot fakes on Facebook.
“I kept coming across people who I knew were smart people and sensitive people who were sharing fake stuff, and this has been [going on for] two or three years,” Cravens said in an interview with BuzzFeed News.
“It was easy to see that there was a contingent of people in my political sphere that were eager to embrace stuff that may or may not have been true just because it agreed with them. And that was a real weird space for me to be in because these were people I had been politically active with in person in the local Republican Party for a while.”
Toby Marie Walker is a longtime volunteer for Ted Cruz’s campaigns who first met Cravens nearly a decade ago in the tea party movement. She’s part of Cravens’ Unfakery group, and says it’s helped her learn to “Trust nothing on the internet until you verify,” as well as to be skeptical and not “let personal bias cloud truth.”
“I am amazed — flabbergasted — that so many people are duped on a daily basis,” she told BuzzFeed News.
J.D. Bryden, founder of the Union County New Jersey Young Republicans and vice chair of the New Jersey Young Republican Federation, is also working with Cravens.
“One of the biggest problems we face today is that the media has devolved into red and blue teams who, for the most part, only care about clicks, cliques, and scoring points for their side,” he told BuzzFeed News, adding that he feels the left derves a lot of blame for unfair portrayals of Mitt Romney and George W. Bush.
Cravens said her political background gives her credibility among conservatives who may be skeptical of fact-checkers.
“I have an established reputation as a conservative, an activist, and someone who is just as likely to get crosswise with elected Republicans as Democrats,” she said. “There's a level of goodwill that I think I had in reserve when I launched this project, and I think that people in my audience know that I come with a particular bias, but that I work hard to be as fair and even-handed as I can when covering stories and trying to find the truth.”
She said the key is to teach people to verify accounts and content on their own, rather than sending them a link to a fact-checking site they may not trust.
“A lot of folks I knew were debunking things by dropping a Snopes link into a discussion — and you know, obviously, the first thing you get back from that is, ‘Look, Snopes is biased, you can’t trust anything they say.’ And I thought, There has to be a way around that problem,” she said.
Tiny Texan Dynamo
Cravens, 48, lives in a western suburb of Houston with her husband and college-age daughter. (Her eldest daughter lives and works in Austin.) She works as a freelance writer and social media consultant, and spoke to BuzzFeed News by phone one morning after making her thrice-weekly trip to drop her husband and daughter off at work and school.
“It's like driving elementary school carpool, except with grown-ups who can get into all sorts of fascinating discussions — this week it was socialism and journalistic integrity,” she said.
Cravens was at one time deeply involved in the tea party and Texas Republican politics to the point where she once admitted that “my own family blocks me on social media because they know what my feed looks like.” Along with founding the Houston Tea Party and organizing rallies, she also ran, unsuccessfully, for chair of the Harris County Republican Party in 2014.
Bryden referred to her as “a tiny Texan dynamo.”
“She has the strength of the convictions she's rigorously struggled through and eventually comes to hold— those strong roots make for an incredibly strong advocate, whether for liberty or for truth,” he said.
Cravens gravitated to her Unfakery work in part because her enthusiasm for political activism has waned.
“I really got tired of doing the rah-rah politics thing and I thought, This is something I can do to bring people together from the left and from the right in the pursuit of good information, and in the pursuit of truth,” she said.
Walker, the longtime Ted Cruz volunteer, also gravitated to Unfakery’s work after losing her fire for political activism. “So now, I bake, I cook fantastic meals for friends, I garden, and I puppy-wrangle two little dachshunds while being entertained by the bullshit people feed others and what the gullible will not only believe, but what they will scream is ‘fake,’” she said.
Though she’s largely given up political activism, Cravens saw that the people she worked with are now facing a barrage of fake content and engagement. “Many folks I knew from tea party days are the targets of a good portion of fakery, and that helps me determine ways to reach them beyond merely telling them a thing is fake,” she said.
Her background in conservative politics gives her a unique perspective on why her fellow conservatives are being targeted with false and misleading information, and why a portion of them accept it. Cravens says the issue starts with the liberal bias of mainstream media and the resulting growth of conservative media.
“Prior to the rise of conservative media, I don't think many people on the right were very aware of possible bias in media, and I think bias mostly came in the form of stories that didn't get covered, or viewpoints that were downplayed,” she said.
The emergence of talk radio, Fox News, and online conservative media helped many people like her conclude that “the traditional media is inherently and hopelessly and irreparably biased.” But she said that the newer breed of online partisan media — which is often referred to as “hyperpartisan media” — took on a more aggressive tone and created a market for misleading or false content.
“The past few years … newer outlets on either side of the spectrum have, I think, found it extremely profitable to be extreme,” she said, adding that in her view, the 2016 election resulted in more negative views of mainstream media. (Cravens was “horrified” by the nonstop coverage of Trump, whom she says she did not support and did not vote for.)
“Reading and sharing some fake news articles, with all the opinion words and loaded language, satisfies something in people who feel that legacy media has betrayed them and attacked them,” she said.
Cravens said conservatives have become “a tempting target audience for fakery that hits their emotional buttons and plays on the long-hoped-for justice that never has yet materialized. That's a profit center that any faker would be foolish to pass up, especially after establishing that it has worked in the past.”
And so Cravens has traded an obsession with political activism for an obsession with hunting fakes. “I don’t know how it happened, maybe I’m just better at spotting patterns than I used to be. But it’s fascinating,” she said.
Hunting Bots on Facebook
Cravens typically posts short videos on Facebook to showcase what she finds. But last week she did an hourlong livestream to walk through the network of more than 100 Facebook bot accounts that she identified with the help of dedicated debunker Sarah Thompson, an Indiana woman who runs the Exploiting the Niche Facebook page and Twitter account.
Two weeks ago, Cravens was sifting through one of her favorite poorly moderated Trump Facebook groups when she saw a meme shared by an account with the name Madalynn Herrin. When she looked at the account's timeline, she saw that it only shared links, that all of the comments on its posts appeared to be automated and nonsensical, and that it almost always quoted the first few sentences of a story it was sharing.
Cravens shared the account with Thompson, who proceeded to create a spreadsheet of roughly 110 Facebook accounts that posted the same comments word-for-word on one another’s profiles, auto-shared the same content with the same text, and that also often spammed content into Trump Facebook groups.
For example, April 16, the Herrin account posted a link to a Fox News story about a 27-year-old murder case. The first comment came from an account with the name Tyrone Tubbs and read, “Whаt a wоnderful trеath. It dоеѕn't get much mоre spеciаl than this my fav iѕ take mе somewhеre nicе аlso I liѕtеn tо thiѕ to escаpe rеаlity and drаw.”
Two weeks earlier, the Tubbs account shared a Fox News story, and a different profile commented on it using the exact same text, right down to the “treath” typo.
The accounts in the network constantly shared content from conservative Facebook pages, such as Fox News, Daily Caller, and Sean Hannity, as well as from mainstream pages, such as NPR or National Geographic.
It’s unclear who owns the botnet, but BuzzFeed News found that the fake accounts consistently posted content from a group of conservative websites that shared the same IP address, Google Analytics code, and design template. This strongly suggests they are run by the same person or group. It’s possible that this group is either paying to have the botnet spam its content to groups in order to generate traffic, or the owners of the sites could also be operating the botnet.
In one example, a story from one of the sites, joinedconservatives.com, was shared to 11 Facebook groups by 11 different bot accounts in the network, according to data from CrowdTangle.
Neither BuzzFeed News, Cravens, nor Thompson have been able to determine the owner(s) of joinedconservatives.com and the other sites connected to it. What’s clear, they say, is that Facebook is doing a poor job of removing fake and automated accounts. Thompson said she wasn’t surprised Facebook failed to identify and remove the full botnet after BuzzFeed News sent it some of the accounts.
“To actually go deeper and notice a knot of interlinked bot accounts with identical activity?” she said. “I won’t hold my breath for that.”
Along with not removing the bots, Facebook’s friend recommendation system yesterday suggested a BuzzFeed News reporter friend with one of the bots. This was likely due to the reporter viewing multiple bots connected to that account. Which raises the question: If Facebook’s friending algorithm(s) could recognize that account was connected to other bots, why couldn’t the company identify the full botnet?
“Facebook is not serious about addressing the issue of fake accounts, and does little to no human monitoring of the reporting sent their way," said Bryden, the Unfakery group member who’s active in the New Jersey GOP.
Cravens is concerned that this and other botnets could be gearing up for the next presidential election. And so each day she scans poorly moderated pro-Trump Facebook groups and other places for fake content and accounts, and thinks about how she can present what she found in an engaging way.
“If I find something that works really well as a short video, I'll plan that out and record it. If an image needs a 'FAKE' stamp, I'll make a GIF of it,” she said in an email. “I also scan my Twitter lists for articles about social media, journalism, fakery, and online security, anything that might help me level up on something, or help me better present content to my followers.”
Cravens is now a voracious consumer of research, articles, and tutorials related to online misinformation and verification techniques. (Disclosure: Cravens is enrolled in a free online class I’m teaching for the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, “Trust and verification in an age of misinformation.”)
“I think people WILL engage with this stuff if they aren't made to feel stupid, and if they aren't made to feel this is all too hard to do, that it's beyond them,” she said in an email. “I try to find ways to prove that they CAN learn to be better information consumers.”
That said, she’s not opposed to giving people a Snopes link now and then.
“I still get razzed every once in a while if I include a link to Snopes. But the way I frame it is: ‘No, Snopes is backing me up, honey.’” ●