Fake Facebook groups leave real activists feeling frustrated

Fake Facebook groups leave real activists feeling frustrated
© Getty

Dr. Lourdes Ashley Hunter was still reeling from President TrumpDonald John TrumpREAD: Transcript of James Comey's interview with House Republicans Klobuchar on 2020: ‘I do think you want voices from the Midwest’ Israel boycott fight roils Democrats in year-end spending debate MORE’s announcement banning military service by transgender people when she received an email asking if she would help organize a protest against the policy.

For Hunter, who is a transgender woman, the ban felt personal, so she was happy to help set up a protest in Washington, D.C.

The local organizer offered to connect Hunter, executive director of the Trans Women of Color Collective, with a woman named Mary Smith from the activist group “ReSister.”

ADVERTISEMENT

For the next two days, Mary Smith worked with Hunter on Facebook Messenger to organize the protest. She also tried to enlist Hunter’s help for a New York City protest against the transgender military ban.

What Hunter didn’t realize at the time was that Smith was part of a coordinated disinformation campaign intended to influence politics and stir division in the United States.

Facebook this week revealed it had identified the “Resisters,” which appears to go by both Resister and ReSister stylings in emails, Facebook chats and archived versions of its now-deleted Facebook page, along with other pages like the “Aztlan Warriors,” and “Black Elevation,” to be a part of “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” It said they sought to spread propaganda online while creating Facebook events that many people showed up to in real life.

In Washington, D.C., where Hunter is based, she gathered sound equipment and other materials for the protest and paid fees associated with it, which Mary Smith said she would repay.

The process seemed to be moving smoothly, but Hunter noticed that some things seemed off.

Mary Smith declined to speak to Hunter on the phone, saying that she “was recovering from neck surgery” and couldn’t talk. She asked Hunter to instead chat through Facebook.

Hunter also ran into odd problems when Mary Smith tried to reimburse her for the fees she had paid over PayPal.

“When I needed to pick up the sound system, I told her to send me the money through PayPal. She couldn’t send the money through PayPal. It kept getting error messages,” Hunter said.

Eventually, Smith turned to a “friend” to pay Hunter on PayPal through an obscure LLC based in Canada.

Other than that, things seemed normal to Hunter, and Smith appeared to be on top of helping out with the protest.

It’s not clear who Smith was, or what group was behind the dozens of inauthentic web pages Facebook identified this week. Some of the actions, however, looked similar to the campaigns run during the 2016 presidential campaign that have been blamed by intelligence agencies on Russia.

The woman named Mary Smith was at the center of several events, according to people who interacted with her on Facebook but never actually met her.

Hunter said Smith’s messages didn’t seem like they were coming from a non-native English speaker.

“This was someone who had exemplary command of the English language,” Hunter said, explaining that she is in crisis mode, more concerned about responding to Trump than being critical of who was reaching out to her.

But Smith never showed for the D.C. event protesting the transgender ban.

“They never showed up. They said they were going to be late. Then they said ‘I have a headache and I can’t make it.’ They never showed up and I never met them,” Hunter said.

Mary Smith claimed that she left the event early because she “had a migraine” and “slept for like 20 hours” according to Facebook Messenger logs that Hunter provided to The Hill that she said were part of her communication with Smith. Smith's Facebook appears to have been deactivated, obscuring the identity of the person Hunter communicated with on Facebook. 

The event on July 29 last year was attended by hundreds of people, according to George Washington University’s student newspaper The Hatchet.

A month later, organizers in Springfield, Mo., were scrambling to put together a protest opposing President Trump's freshly announced visit to the city when a Mary Smith reached out to them.

“Greetings! My name's Mary Smith. I'm with Resisters [sic] community. We're setting up a list of speakers atm [sic] and will send you the complete list in a couple of hours,” she wrote in an email to Springfield Indivisible.

Organizer Erin Kappeler said something didn’t seem quite right about Smith, but that she initially heard her out because she claimed that she was connected to high-profile community organizer and activist Cori Bush, who gained visibility during the Ferguson, Mo., protests after black teenager Michael Brown was shot by a white police officer.

Smith purported to be a black woman, based on Kappeler’s recollection of her Facebook profile picture.

“It was just a really weird interaction from the beginning,” Kappeler said. “We were getting messages from people we didn’t know who wanted to help but this one was weird. They said they had a list of speakers and would send it in a couple hours.”

Kappeler and her group decided to not work with Mary Smith and the Resisters after things started to not check out.

When Kappeler reached out to Kirstin Palovick, an organizer with NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, Palovick had no idea who Mary Smith was. Smith had indicated to Kappeler that she knew Palovick personally.

“It seemed to be a group that sorted of understood the lay of the activist land. Beyond that, the messages were sort of odd and didn’t make a lot of sense,” said Kappeler, who deleted her Facebook and no longer has access to her Messenger correspondence with Mary Smith.

In August 2017, Resisters held a rally titled “Protest Trump and ideology of hate at Trump Tower!” which an archived version of the Facebook page says it co-hosted with “Refuse Fascism.”

In September 2017, the Resisters also held a protest called “We Stand with DREAMers! Support DACA!” which the archived Facebook event says it held with The People for Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersKlobuchar on 2020: ‘I do think you want voices from the Midwest’ Dem pollster says it's 'misstated wisdom' to assume competitive primaries damage presidential nominees Group launches campaign to 'Draft Beto' for 2020 White House bid MORE.

Both groups did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment.

The Resisters and someone named Mary were also involved in the forthcoming “No Unite The Right 2-D.C.” protest countering white supremacist Jason Kessler’s planned “Unite The Right II” rally, which was expected to be held in either Charlottesville, Va., or Washington, D.C.

Brendan Orsinger, a D.C.-based organizer, said he was asked to become an admin — Facebook's term for a user with the authority to manage a page on its platform — on the Resisters page after organizing the State of The Union Trump protest. 

He said he never met anyone from the group in real life, but interacted with someone named Mary, whom he declined to provide a full name for out of respect for her privacy.

A representative from Workers Against Racism, one of the groups in the “Shut It Down DC Coalition” organizing the “No Unite The Right 2” event, told The Hill that they were approached by a separate woman claiming to be with the Resisters, Natasha Shipley, about the event, but only via Facebook Messenger.

In her correspondence with Hunter, Mary Smith also mentions a woman named Natasha as a part of the Resisters.

Multiple organizers told The Hill that they were frustrated by the possibility that the involvement of a fake account could undermine their actual causes.

“We might be cast as Russian agents or as Russian dupes but we have been organizing for a long time,” said Andrew Batcher of the activist group Smash Racism.

He told The Hill that his coalition was already planning a counterprotest to the Unite The Right anniversary rally prior to seeing Resisters’s event page.

Groups like Hunter’s and Kappeler’s, whose events already happened, stressed that the protests captured real energy, independent of anything the Resisters were doing.

The “Shut It Down D.C.” coalition, which has yet to hold its event, also said the Resisters played a negligible role and expressed frustration at Facebook deleting the entire event online.

Facebook defended its decision, saying that it weighed the matter heavily.

“Facebook’s decision to remove the event was about addressing the coordinated inauthentic behavior we identified and maintaining the security of our services. We ban hate organizations from our platform and are encouraged to see people using Facebook to stand up against white supremacy,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone told The Hill over email.

The coalition has since posted a new event page on Facebook.

“The real story is not about the Resisters,” Batcher said. “The story is in the fact that Facebook shut down an actual event, an actual protest that is against the anniversary of when Nazi’s murder someone.”