UPDATE 2-Facebook says media group used fake faces to push pro-Trump messages

Joseph Menn

(Adds comment from Epoch Media, more details on operation)

SAN FRANCISCO, Dec 20 (Reuters) - Facebook Inc has taken action against a well-financed media network that used dozens of artificially generated faces to spread pro-Trump and anti-Chinese government messages, the company and outside researchers said on Friday.

Researchers from New York-based Graphika and the Digitial Forensics Research Lab said it was the first time they had seen the large-scale use of computer-generated faces to spread disinformation on social media.

Facebook said https://about.fb.com/news/2019/12/removing-coordinated-inauthentic-behavior-from - g e o r g i a - v i e t n a m - a n d - t h e - u s those behind the operations spent upward of $9 million on advertising to promote their content, which touched on hot-button issues such as "impeachment, conservative ideology, political candidates, elections, trade, family values and freedom of religion." The amount is roughly 90 times what Facebook said https://about.fb.com/news/2017/09/information-operations-update Russia's infamous troll farm spent in the run-up to and shortly after the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Facebook said its investigation linked the activity to U.S.-based Epoch Media Group and individuals in Vietnam working on its behalf, though the accounts more openly associated with The BL, for the Beauty of Life.

In a statement, Epoch said it had "no connection with the website BL."

"The BL was founded by a former employee, and employs some of our former employees," publisher Stephen Gregory said in a post https://www.theepochtimes.com/facebook-errs-in-connecting-epoch-media-group-to-b l t 3 1 8 0 8 3 8 . h t m l to the Epoch Times website. He called on Facebook to withdraw its allegation and lift a pre-existing ban on Epoch Media's advertising.

The BL did not immediately return emails seeking comment. A phone number listed on its website rang unanswered.

The Epoch Times was set up as a print publication by followers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, banned in China, before moving heavily online.

Some of the pages and groups, including those with fictitious administrators, were explicitly dedicated to supporting Trump, while others interspersed politics with other topics. One identified by the outside researchers was called "Stand with President Trump 2020."

"Alongside pro-Trump material, these assets posted large quantities of material attacking his critics and rivals, often presenting users with a partisan statement and urging them to respond if they agreed," the researchers wrote in a report on the operation.

The BL's now-removed Facebook page said that it would "focus on content that represents fundamental moral standards and values, to enlighten all who prefer to be inspired," according to the researchers.

While the page said it rejected misinformation, Facebook said "The BL-focused network repeatedly violated a number of our policies, including our policies against coordinated inauthentic behavior, spam and misrepresentation."

The takedown followed investigative stories by NBC on the Epoch Times' heavy use https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/tech-news/trump-qanon-impending-judgment-day-behind - f a c e b o o k - f u e l e d - r i s e - e p o c h - n 1 0 4 4 1 2 1 of Facebook and by the fact-checking website Snopes.com https://www.snopes.com/news/2019/10/11/pro-trump-outlet-linked-epoch-times on The BL. (Reporting by Joseph Menn in San Francisco, Munsif Vengattil in Bengaluru, and Raphael Satter in Washington; Editing by Shinjini Ganguli, Nick Macfie and Richard Chang)