Linked Facebook pages stoke both sides of political divide

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One Spanish-language Facebook page called Nancy Pelosi “crazy” and accused Joe Biden of forgetting the words to the Pledge of Allegiance. Another proclaimed the Democratic nominee “healthy and ready to be president!” and included an image of Donald Trump and his adult children wearing orange prison jumpsuits.

But one thing united the two pages, despite the dueling messages: A New York state man was behind both of them, churning out political content aimed at left- and right-wing voters while garnering millions of comments, likes and reposts across social media, according to an analysis by POLITICO.

The Facebook pages and linked websites targeted Spanish speakers across the United States and received, collectively, more online engagement in the last three months than mainstream outlets including the Boston Globe and the Chicago Tribune, based on data from CrowdTangle, a social media analytics tool owned by Facebook. The sites and pages abruptly vanished late this week, after POLITICO asked the organizers about their operations.

The ability of these highly partisan Facebook pages — linked to the same individual — to drive online engagement ahead of November’s election shows how the social networking giant continues to struggle with a basic task: clamping down on undisclosed activity despite years of promises to thwart inauthentic content.

The person who controlled the Facebook pages, identified by a person with direct knowledge of the matter as Sean Winston of White Plains, N.Y., did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

An email account belonging to one of the Facebook pages, in a message to POLITICO on Thursday, did not confirm Winston’s involvement in the online activities. But it said two of the social media accounts were no longer operational, adding, “There truly is not much to say on these sites.”

Winston’s Facebook page, the pages of the Spanish-language operations and their affiliated websites were all offline as of Friday.

Four misinformation experts and intelligence analysts who reviewed POLITICO’s findings said the fact the social media accounts were reaching millions of online users, then directing them to websites that ran ads and had their own online stores, made it more likely that the operation was focused on making money from politicized content instead of dividing voters along party lines.

“There’s a lot of people making money from disinformation,” said Karen Kornbluh, director of the Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “Because salacious content attracts so many eyeballs, it generates money for platforms and the purveyors of disinformation.”

Misinformation analysts acknowledged that Facebook had clamped down on such inauthentic activity over the last two years, but said it was still relatively simple to create viral online content for either political or financial gain.

With just weeks to go before the U.S. election, Facebook said it has pulled out all the stops to reduce the amount — and spread — of fake and slanted content on its platform. That includes clamping down on so-called clickbait operations, or efforts to drum up reams of page views in the hopes of generating online advertising.

“We took action on these pages before the page owner took them down,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement to POLITICO, adding that the company removed the ability of at least one of the pages to buy ads because outside fact-checkers had deemed that some of the posted content was false.

As of Thursday, before the sites went down, the company was still showing get-out-the-vote messages alongside both accounts’ politicized content, based on POLITICO’s review.

Opposite messages, same backers

In social media posts titled “You can tell Trump is afraid of Kamala Harris!” and “Even Joe Biden knows he will lose the election,” the Facebook pages associated with the New York-based man portrayed themselves as independent online media outlets for Spanish-speaking voters. That community has seen a barrage of conspiracy theories and other misinformation, like all Americans, in the run-up to November’s election.

In almost daily posts that linked to websites also tied to Winston, these Facebook pages served up red meat to liberal and conservative voters but did not say they were connected to the same individual. Their Facebook-generated “Page Transparency” features, created by the social network to provide greater clarity on who controls pages, also failed to disclose the connection.

Alerta Política, with almost 500,000 Facebook followers, targeted left-leaning users with attacks against Trump and praise for Biden. In the days after last month’s presidential debate, at least two of the page’s posts ranked in the 20 most-shared posts about the candidates within Facebook’s Spanish-speaking communities in the U.S., based on POLITICO’s review of CrowdTangle data — even outpacing reports from traditional outlets like CNN en Español and Univision.

Its rightwing counterpart, Política Veraz, had fewer online followers, at just over 43,000. But its Facebook page received more than 500,000 social media interactions since July, in the form of people sharing its conservative content, as well as comments and likes on the material, according to CrowdTangle’s data. That’s roughly the same footprint on Facebook as the Boston Globe over the same period.

Despite taking opposite sides in the upcoming election, both Facebook pages shared ties with Winston, whose other ventures include a coffee bean outfit, gaming social network and digital media company, based on a review of corporate filings, online activity and social media posts. Online records for the sites — including a phone number on the Política Veraz Facebook page and on Winston’s own personal Facebook page — matched those of his other online activities.

Winston does not appear to have a notable history of political activism. He has not donated to federal political candidates, based on a review of campaign finance records, and New York’s online voter registry shows a man matching his description as a registered Democrat who has voted in all federal elections since 2008.

Alerta Política, its fellow liberal site LeftOverRights and the conservative site Política Veraz were some of the only websites hosted on the same server as Winston’s personal websites, according to multiple tools that track which servers host specific websites. That server is also home to the site for his coffee bean company and a gaming social network also linked to Winston, according to separate online records.

The sites also shared Google online identifiers, or code used to place online advertising on the websites. That — along with the sites hosted on the same server — raises the likelihood that one individual was behind all of the pages, according to Daniel Maki, an intelligence and investigations analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based group that typically tracks online hate speech across the web.

“The likelihood of him not being involved in these Facebook pages and sites is very low,” he added.

The Política Veraz website also asked people to buy from Winston’s coffee business to support the political outlet, which said it was suffering because of Covid-19. And Winston was listed as an author on both Política Veraz and LeftOverRights, based on POLITICO’s review of the page’s historical online records. All three websites had the same design, including online stores that sold both pro-Trump and pro-Biden merchandise, respectively.

POLITICO first discovered the Facebook pages while reviewing the most shared Spanish-language social media content linked to the November election. Unlike more traditional news outlets, neither Política Veraz or Alerta Política provided any details on who was running the sites or their political affiliations.

Shifting strategies

During the past two months, the left- and right-leaning Facebook pages and sites shifted messages and tactics repeatedly amid events like the Democratic and Republican conventions, the presidential debate and Trump’s positive Covid-19 test.

Despite Alerta Política’s half-million Facebook followers, for instance, its associated website stopped pumping out content in early August. Instead, the social media page began linking to similar liberal content from Winston’s separate site, LeftOverRights — a strategy that continued at pace, with some of their most recent posts garnering thousands of comments and shares, based on CrowdTangle data.

Alerta Política’s most recent Facebook post, published late on Thursday, highlighted the decision by Charlie Baker, Massachusetts’ Republican governor, not to support Trump’s reelection bid. “Well done! Very good decision,” said the post, which was shared and commented on more than 200 times, respectively, and garnered more than 1,200 other social media engagements, based on CrowdTangle data.

The right-wing site, Política Veraz, however, published its latest update — a story accusing Biden of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance “completely wrong” — on Sept. 22, and its Facebook page also had not posted anything since then.

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