Snopes may be known for debunking urban legends, hoaxes, and folklore, but our journalistic efforts go far beyond that. Investigations into inauthentic behavior seek to expose bad actors and their methods. These stories also document patterns of the shortcomings of social media platforms, in particular when it comes to U.S. politics.
As part of our continuing coverage of election misinformation and disinformation efforts, we’ve been examining coordinated inauthentic behavior (CIB) on Facebook. Our latest investigation into the private Facebook group Sarah Huckabee Sanders Supporters has found mounting evidence of such behavior having occurred for nearly three years. Foreign-run fake accounts have littered the group’s posts with pro-Trump politics, hate, and disinformation. Fake account admins have also showed hints of foreign influence, possibly from North Macedonia. An unwitting American citizen moderated the group from Kentucky for more than two years. Several of the admins have been removed, yet the group lives on.
Pro-Trump content, some of which is disinformation, has been posted in the group by foreign accounts as far back as 2017. There was no indication that the former White House press secretary had any involvement with the group. In addition to the group’s disinformation, some posts within the group, such as one suggesting “using deadly force” on migrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, appeared hateful, and even Islamophobic. The examples below come from accounts that no longer exist:
The group’s membership count has stayed steady at just over 20,000 members since around August 2018, the same time its head administrator apparently was removed because it was a fake account. That number of members is hardly considered large compared to other political groups on Facebook. For example, Snopes reported on a Macedonian-run group for White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany as having more than 456,000 members. Another example was the Ukrainian page World USA, which we reported had almost a million followers.
Overall, the key aspect of this story is the fact that the Sarah Huckabee Sanders Supporters group remains active despite its troubling history, and that there may be many other groups with similar issues.
On Nov. 7, 2015, a woman who identified as Kristina Cruz posted her first profile picture on her Facebook profile. In the photograph, she’s blonde and is holding a glass of red wine. It’s nighttime. Behind her on the wall is a framed poster for the 1968 Steve McQueen film “Bullitt.”
A Facebook timestamp showed that two minutes later she uploaded her first cover photo. It’s a selfie with another woman, perhaps a friend or relative. They might be in a tropical location. There’s a palm tree in the upper background.
Two minutes after posting her cover photo, she shared two new Chicago Tribune stories. She also filled out her profile, choosing Chicago, Illinois, as her hometown. At the time, this young blonde American girl had 11 Facebook friends.
The Facebook account for Kristina Cruz was fake. We performed reverse-image searches to find other websites that have featured the same profile and cover photos, but no results turned up. Someone had repurposed the photos of the woman to create the fake account.
Four Admins and One Moderator
It appears the Kristina Cruz fake account created the Facebook group Sarah Huckabee Sanders Supporters on Nov. 22, 2017. By July 31, 2018, it had picked up three more administrators, plus a moderator. Admins are the top level accounts in Facebook groups. When looking at an online forum hierarchy, moderators are beneath admins and are given less abilities to manage groups. These five accounts were the lineup of group management as of July 31, 2018:
- Lillian Nguyen was a fake account admin for the group, claiming to be from Las Vegas, Nevada, and currently living in Nässjö, Sweden. The account had two friends in 2018 and has seven friends as of October 2020. Her account may have disappeared for a short time in 2018 (Facebook appeared to have removed her account after we contacted them for this story).
- Svetlana Janevska was a fake account admin as well. Facebook appeared to have removed the account around August 2018.
- Ashley Lavrijssen was a fake admin account that also disappeared around August 2018. However, it reappeared months later, and is still an admin as of October 2020.
- An American woman was a moderator for the group until just after we contacted Facebook in October 2020. For this story we have chosen to only refer to her as “Diane,” for privacy purposes. Public records show she lives in Kentucky.
In order to figure out which country or countries the admins in Sarah Huckabee Sanders Supporters hailed from, it’s important to look at the admin account information, studying name origins, page likes, and friends lists.
Janevska was one of the admins until August 2018. According to Forebears and Names List, the last name Janevska has origins in North Macedonia. The Facebook account for Svetlana Janevska had the username facebook.com/aleksandar.ivanovski.180, clearly a different name. The name Ivanovski also has origins in North Macedonia, according to Forebears.
A second clue comes from Cruz’s friends list. Cruz’s account was once friends with another account named Svetlana Ivanovska, which lists a home city of Kumanovo in North Macedonia. This account happened to have the username, facebook.com/svetlana.janevska.35, and its profile photo was updated on Aug. 10, 2018, around the same time the admin Janevska was removed from Facebook. It appears likely that one person controlled both Facebook accounts for Janevska and Ivanovska, and when Facebook removed the former, the latter was already there waiting as a backup account.
While the Edwards account has been removed from Facebook, reverse-image searching of its profile picture turned up top results in one language: Macedonian.
A glance at the group’s members showed that influences existed from other countries, too. Group member Stacy Tamson had a profile that almost exclusively liked pages with influences from India. Rana Zeeshan’s profile liked mostly Pakistani pages. David Johnson’s profile photo was that of actor Josh Duhamel. The fake account creator posted disinformation in the Facebook group, and accidentally chose female instead of male when setting up the profile, so it says: “David Johnson updated her profile picture,” all with a photo of the actor:
Member Linda Brown Warren claimed to be from California City, California, and Johnson James said he was from Texas City, Texas. These two small American towns do exist, as does Edwards’ supposed town of Nevada, Missouri. However, in investigations of coordinated inauthentic behavior, these cities are also a dead giveaway for fake accounts. It’s as if these fake-account creators started typing out prominent states in a field that asked for a city name, typing California, Nevada, or Texas, and went with the first results: California City, California, or Nevada, Missouri, or Texas City, Texas. We’ve seen these cities, including Texas City, in other investigations, such as our reporting on the massive, foreign-run, pro-Trump network The BL. The creator of the Facebook account for James also did not have an understanding of the order of American first and last names, likely meaning to create a fake account named James Johnson.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders Supporters certainly had its fair share of content posted by foreign fake accounts. However, an overview of the many comments under these inauthentic posts appeared to show that the group’s active membership consisted of a majority of real Americans.
In July 2018, the group gained 805 new members to bring its total to 20,665:
The group’s member count would soon rise just over 22,000 members. Following the removal of the accounts for admins Cruz and Janevska, membership growth stalled. As of October 2020, Sarah Huckabee Sanders Supporters shows zero new members added in the past month. Its member count has dwindled to 20,219. Part of the response we received from Facebook, detailed later in this story, explained that the group’s distribution had been reduced.
However, the group still averages 68 new posts per day. Thousands of Americans have consumed content posted by foreign fake accounts for nearly three years, not just by group members, but perhaps also by people outside of the group who shared post screenshots. It’s also possible that the group was public in the past, increasing its potential to reach more people.
The American Moderator
A woman named Diane was the lone moderator in Sarah Huckabee Sanders Supporters. For privacy purposes, we have chosen to publish only her first name in our story. She remained listed as a moderator in the group for more than two years even after several admins disappeared around August 2018.
According to public records, Diane lives in Kentucky and is a real person. Snopes reporters attempted to reach out to her by phone and email, but did not receive a response.
In order to find out when she became a moderator in the group, we first looked at all of the data and research Snopes reporters have gathered about the group since 2018. According to our research, she was moderating the group as far back as July 31, 2018. Before we contacted Facebook for comment for this story, she was still listed as a moderator, but that changed after we reached out to the company:
Facebook users cannot become moderators without approval from admins, so this means the foreign fake account admins had a part in recruiting Diane, an American, to moderate the group.
On June 10, 2018, the foreign admin fake account named Kristina Cruz posted the Trumpian word, “YUGE!” More than a month later, Diane asked Cruz for help in the comments section under the post. On July 25, 2018, Diane said there were not yet any moderators in Sarah Huckabee Sanders Supporters:
One day later on July 26, 2018, another Facebook user responded to Diane: “Diane I think this group has bogus admins.” The other user also noted that the admins have few or no friends.
Diane then asked: “Really? I’m probably NOT as ‘savvy’ as you on fb matters – but! – HOW and/ or WHY does THIS happen? If true, I don’t get it….WHY would anyone create a ‘cool’ group and be ‘absent’? P.S If true…do you know HOW I CAN (,and selected few) take over?”
Less than five days later, Diane was recruited to be a moderator.
Our Questions for Facebook
We reached out to Facebook for comment, asking about the Sarah Huckabee Sanders Supporters group hosting what appeared to be foreign-pushed disinformation with hints of ties to specific countries, one example being North Macedonia. We also told them about Diane, apparently an unwitting American woman living in Kentucky, asking what protocols Facebook has in place when an unwitting American is brought on to unknowingly be involved in managing part of a foreign disinformation operation.
Our second question mentioned the 2018 removals of admins Cruz and Janevska, and that someone by the name of Ashley Lavrijssen disappeared for months. We asked why she reappeared, why Lillian Nguyen is still there, and what they could tell us about the removal of the accounts for Cruz and Janevska.
The final question posed to Facebook was the following: “Over the last two years, Snopes has internally documented a large number of foreign fake accounts and their disinfo posts in the group. A study of the commenters led us to believe the vast majority are Americans. Action was taken on what appeared to be at least three admins in the past, with one reappearing later. With all of this in mind, why has the Facebook Group not been removed?”
“Our Community Standards apply across our services, including in Groups. We have reduced this Group’s distribution — which is how we treat this kind of misinformation — and will continue monitoring.”
Lillian Nguyen Disappears
After receiving this response from Facebook, the account for the fake admin named Nguyen disappeared. Diane also no longer appears as a moderator for the group, but is still active on Facebook. The last remaining account to manage the group is the fake account admin Lavrijssen.
We asked Facebook why it removed the account for Nguyen, but not Lavrijssen. We also pointed out that the group hosts not just misinformation, but also what appeared to be disinformation. Disinformation implies intent on the part of the accounts posting dubious content. We also asked again if the company had any comment on Diane, an American, being recruited to moderate the group. We did not receive a response.
Despite all of this, Sarah Huckabee Sanders Supporters is still active. Thousands of Americans have been influenced by its content, its lone admin is a foreign fake account, and a woman in Kentucky moderated a foreign influence operation for more than two years.