Blog October 8, 2020

Analysis of an October 2020 Facebook Takedown Linked to U.S. Political Consultancy Rally Forge

An astroturfing operation involving fake accounts (some with AI-generated images) that left thousands of comments on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Clients included Turning Point Action and Inclusive Conservation Group, a pro-hunting organization.
banner image fb takedown

In this post and in the attached report we investigate a U.S. domestic astroturfing operation that Facebook attributed to social media consultancy Rally Forge. The use of marketing agencies and social consultancies to carry out influence operations has become quite common now, worldwide. Hiring an agency may afford the client plausible deniability in the event of discovery. Rally Forge served a range of clients including Turning Point Action and Inclusive Conservation Group. In September 2019 it was implicated in an operation uncovered by the Washington Post, in which teenagers appeared to be posting comments using fake accounts. Twitter and Facebook each took down a subset of the accounts immediately, and Facebook opened an investigation. This report provides an assessment of content taken down as a result of that investigation. 

Key takeaways

  • Rally Forge-linked accounts engaged in astroturfing operations on multiple platforms, posting “vox populi” comments about hunting or politics that appeared grassroots but was in fact paid commentary, much of it from people who did not exist.

  • The fake accounts were operated over a period of several years, with a period of dormancy that appeared to coincide with the end of the 2018 election cycle. These fake accounts occasionally pivoted in their expressed political beliefs and topical focus. 

  • Most of the Rally Forge-linked Page audiences were small, and comments that its personas left did not appear to generate much response. However, several of its Pages did achieve significant reach at their peak.

hunting memes
Examples of content and replies from the hunting-advocacy astroturfing operation carried out by the network.

While there are bright lines when it comes to foreign influence operations, policies are fuzzier when considering U.S.-based actors, particularly as networked activism tactics are used by an increasing variety of domestic political and issue-based advocacy groups. In this case, the vast majority of the content that Facebook attributed to the Rally Forge network consisted of fairly standard political and issue-based advocacy work. However, there was additionally extensive inauthenticity in the form of fake accounts, which attempted to manipulate the public by way of astroturfed comment activity.

networkgraph
The Rally Forge network across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Twitter is the upper left, Instagram lower right, and Facebook the smaller cluster between them. Large nodes are individual actors in the network, and the small nodes surrounding them are “interests”—Pages and accounts that they follow. Accounts are increasingly likely to be “real” as they stray from the center of the clusters and have additional diverse interests. Subcommunities of the 3 major social networks, represented with different color, are inferred by modularity. For example, the two darkest colored clusters on the lower right are of International Conservation Group leadership.