A year after Facebook announced that it had removed hundreds of fake Russian accounts, the first of many revelations regarding Russia’s manipulation of social media through the 2016 U.S. presidential election, it appears the company has started letting other users claim the usernames and URLs vacated by Russian operatives.
The fact that Facebook has allowed users to reclaim usernames and URLs formerly associated with Russian operatives is a bizarre move, especially considering other platforms like Twitter bar new users from recycling any information from any suspended accounts. Likewise, it’s going to make tracking fake Russian Facebook accounts that much harder — especially since Facebook has never released a list of the hundreds of fake Russian accounts already identified.
The “Heart of Texas” page, which once lived at facebook.com/txrebels, was one of the first accounts removed in September 2017. The page was one of the most popular fake Russian accounts, generating approximately a quarter of a million fans — more than the official Texas Democratic or Texas GOP pages combined at one point. Its content covered a wide spectrum, promoting pro-secession and anti-Islam rallies alike. When Facebook announced it had removed hundreds of accounts, the “Heart of Texas” page went dead.
— Robin (@TinyTexRobin) January 18, 2017
In August, though, another group decided to claim the username — and apparently didn’t receive any notification from Facebook that the facebook.com/txrebels page had once belonged to one of the most well-known fake Russian Facebook pages.
According to the current facebook.com/txrebels page, the Texas Rebels are a fast-pitch softball team for young girls, competing out of San Antonio. The current page seems more akin to something Facebook was intended for: highlighting photos of members, community support, contact information of organizers.
However, team organizers told ThinkProgress they had no idea the @txrebels user-name and facebook.com/txrebels URL had previously been manned by Russian operatives. There was “no notification from Facebook,” one of the team organizers told ThinkProgress.
Likewise, Facebook offered no indication to the team that the username and URL could be traced back to Russia. There was “no problem setting up [the page]. No issues with it.”
It appears facebook.com/txrebels is the first formerly Russian Facebook page to come back to life after last year’s mass removal. All of the other known fake Russian pages — “Blacktivist,” “Williams & Kalvin,” “Black Matters US,” and the like — remain dark.
However, since Facebook has never publicly released a list of all of the fake accounts it has identified, it’s impossible to say whether or not this is an isolated incident.
It’s unclear why Facebook decided to permit the facebook.com/txrebels page to come back to life, and whether it was an oversight or part of a broader policy. The company did not respond to ThinkProgress’ questions.
The revelation not only raises new questions about Facebook’s transparency, but whether, a year later, the company even has a handle of the depths of the foreign manipulation it continues to face. Not only will recycling names make future research into these Facebook pages that much more difficult — and confusing — but it also contradicts policies at other social media companies.
For instance, a spokesperson for Twitter told ThinkProgress that account information linked to suspended users remains unusable for other users. That is, once an account is suspended, its vital information — such as its username — are off-limits.
Recycling URLs and usernames from fake Russian accounts fits into a prolonged trend regarding the company’s handling of Russian material advocating Texas secession (to say nothing of the far larger issues currently faced by the company). Not only did Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, permit “Heart of Texas” material to remain on its platform into late 2017 — including a completely new account that appeared to be another fake Russian feed — but a separate Facebook page, “Texas in my Heart,” remained up until last month. A bulk of the material on “Texas in my Heart” was lifted directly from “Heart of Texas,” meaning the fake Russian material lived on even after the original page was removed — and even after a softball team had taken over the original URL.