This year is shaping up to be pretty momentous, newswise. What we do — and how we do it — may be more important now than ever. In an effort towards transparency, we’ll be sharing occasional posts that explain how we do what we do, including stories behind the stories. Got an idea for such a post? Let us know.
—Doreen Marchionni, managing editor Snopes.com.
Just before 6 p.m. PDT on Sunday, Oct. 7, 2019, Operations Editor Jordan Liles flagged a Facebook group named “The BL” — short for “The Beauty of Life — in a Snopes’ investigations chatroom. The page, with over a million followers, claimed to be run from a residential home in rural New York State, but the page itself listed a significant number of administrators from abroad, most notably Vietnam. “They’re claiming to simply be about the beauty of life but they’re 100% political,” Liles wrote in the company chat. “That’s so weird.”
By midnight that night, Liles, Senior Reporter Alex Kasprak, and Snopes General Manager Vinny Green had determined that the outlet was staffed by several former employees of The Epoch Times — a newspaper created and run by adherents to a spiritual practice and anti-communist political movement known as Falun Gong. We learned that some of its network infrastructure was owned by and registered to a company named Epoch Times Vietnam. We determined that the New York address had a long association with other Falun Gong media properties, including Sound of Hope Radio. We noted as well what appeared to be the use of fake profiles and deceptive Facebook groups to promote The BL’s content.
It would take another three months before Facebook publicly acknowledged these facts. Between Oct. 15 and Dec. 13, Snopes published three deep investigations into The BL, its undisclosed connections to Falun Gong media properties, and The BL’s flouting of Facebook’s terms of service. During this timeframe, other outlets publicly reported on The BL’s behavior, including Sarah Thompson of Lead Stories. In November, we identified hundreds of fake accounts, of largely Vietnamese origin, used to promote BL-linked groups without disclosure, providing them to Facebook and describing their tactics as “unambiguously inauthentic or fraudulent.” By December, we shared a second batch of fake profiles and groups tied to the BL with Facebook, challenging the platform to explain its apparent inaction against this “textbook example” of coordinated inauthentic behavior.
Three months after our first report and one week after our December article, Facebook announced it had banned The BL and its associated groups from the platform. Twitter and other tech companies took action against The BL on their platforms later that day. Hailing it as one of the most significant actions the company’s security team had taken against abuse that year, Facebook reported that it had “removed 610 accounts, 89 Facebook Pages, 156 Groups and 72 Instagram accounts that originated in Vietnam and the US” which they had “linked … to Epoch Media Group, a US-based media organization, and individuals in Vietnam working on its behalf.”
Facebook’s approach both with respect to The BL’s fraudulent activity as well as the way it handled Snopes’ newsroom inquiries was perplexing. We reached out to Facebook several times, and only once received an official comment (in November) that the company was “reviewing this information.” In Facebook’s telling, it had been aware of The BL network since July 2019. Instead of taking action on the network immediately, Facebook commissioned a study on the network and observed its behavior for five months. That study relies heavily and explicitly on Snopes’ reporting, a fact acknowledged by Facebook’s head of security himself, who described it as “essential”:
Despite this, when Facebook eventually did act, the company provided advanced notice of its actions to several media outlets that had not previously reported on The BL, leaving us in the dark as to the results of this hard-fought investigation. Further, their public statements diminished the importance of Snopes’ reporting and instead resulted in stories that largely hailed Facebook’s own investigative chops.
Earlier in 2019, Snopes declined to continue participating in Facebook’s fact-checking program, citing ethical, financial, and editorial concerns with Facebook and its approach to misinformation. Thanks to your continued support, Snopes will continue to work as a fiercely independent entity, challenging Facebook and others to articulate clear policies and act on them in a reasonable amount of time as the 2020 general election approaches. This work is crucial and it is ongoing.