Facebook stunned and angered organizers of a protest against white supremacists when it disabled their Washington event's page this week, saying it and others had been created by "bad actors" misusing the social media platform.
The company said the page —— violated its ban on "coordinated inauthentic behavior" and may be linked to an account created by Russia's Internet Research Agency, a so-called troll farm that has sown discord in the U.S.
But the organizers of next weekend's protest in Washington say Facebook has unfairly and recklessly tarnished their work by suggesting their event could be linked to a Russian campaign to interfere in U.S. politics.
April Goggans, an organizer of Black Lives Matter DC, said protest organizers began planning the event before the Facebook page's creation. Organizers have set up a new page, but Goggans fears Facebook's crackdown left many people with the false impression that a Russian bot is behind their event.
"Our participation may take a hit because people are trying to find out what's legit and what's not," she said Wednesday.
For weeks, activists have been planning a counterprotest to the Washington rally organized by Jason Kessler, the principal organizer of last summer's deadly white nationalist gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia. Hundreds of Facebook users clicked on the event's Facebook page to signal their intent to attend the counterprotest.
Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook's head of cybersecurity policy, said in a statement Tuesday that "inauthentic" administrators of a page called "Resisters" connected with administrators from five legitimate pages to co-host the event and enlist support from "real people."
"These legitimate Pages unwittingly helped build interest in 'No Unite Right 2 - DC' and posted information about transportation, materials, and locations so people could get to the protests," Gleicher wrote.
Gleicher's statement said Facebook disabled the event page Tuesday and reached out to the administrators of the five other pages "to update them on what happened." Facebook also planned to report the issue to approximately 2,600 users who had expressed interested in the event and to more than 600 users who said they planned to attend it.
Andrew Batcher, an organizer for the Shut It Down DC coalition formed to protest Kessler's rally, said the event page created by "Resisters" was taken over and controlled by "a lot of real people doing real work." Batcher said he hasn't seen any evidence that any of administrators for the "Resisters' page was a "bad actor."
"All the content on the page came from local organizers," he said. "Facebook took it all down, which I see as censorship of a real protest event."
Researchers at the Atlantic Council, a nonprofit working with Facebook to analyze abuse on its service, said the accounts identified for removal sought to promote divisions between Americans. The accounts seemed focused on building an online audience and moving it to offline events such as protests.
Facebook didn't directly link Tuesday's crackdown to Russia or U.S. midterm elections in the fall. But the company said it found evidence of "some connections" between the deleted accounts and accounts that Russia's IRA created before Facebook disabled them last year. Facebook said one of the disabled IRA accounts shared a Facebook event hosted by the "Resisters" page, which had an IRA account as one of its administrators "for only seven minutes."
"If that's the case, then it's pretty meaningless infiltration," Batcher said.
But that discovery "could be a sign of something deeper" and not necessarily the full extent of the IRA account's activity on the page, said Dipayan Ghosh, a former Facebook employee who worked on global privacy and public policy issues for the company.
"It just raises a bunch of questions that suggest there is a complicated ecosystem here and we're only scratching the surface," said Ghosh, a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
In February, a federal indictment accused 13 Russians of operating a hidden social media trolling campaign, posing as U.S. activists and posting about divisive political and social issues. Investigators have concluded the Russians coordinated and leveraged the support of unwitting Americans in carrying out their campaign.
Kessler scheduled his Aug. 12 event in Washington to mark the anniversary of the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, where hundreds of white supremacists and counterprotesters clashed in the streets before a car plowed into a crowd, killing 32-year-old counterprotester Heather Heyer. The National Park Service approved Kessler's application for a "white civil rights" rally at Lafayette Square, near the White House, but hasn't issued a permit for the event.
Goggans said Facebook's crackdown has been a time-consuming distraction for counterprotest organizers.
"Over the past 18 hours, we've been having to prove we exist," she said.