Nineteen of 20 top pages for American Christians on Facebook were in fact managed by Eastern European troll farms in 2019, internal documents have shown. The groups behind Facebook's top pages for American Christians were mostly based in Kosovo and Macedonia.
According to the Christian Headlines, these groups attempted to target American Christians with "provocative content" and may have been part of a larger network that collectively worked to reach Americans and change their political opinions. But what exactly are troll farms?
Troll farms or a troll factory is defined by Screen Shot Media as "an institutional group of trolls that seek to interfere in political opinions and decision making." In this case, these troll farms behind 19 of Facebook's top 20 pages for American Christians were found to have been run by troll farms located in Eastern Europe.
According to Relevant Magazine, internal documents leaked to the MIT Technology Review showed the vast spread of Facebook misinformation from these pages, which is a result of "coordinated efforts among foreign professionals."
The most concerning part is that the report says these groups have been "particularly successful when it comes to targeting American Christians." These allegedly Christian Facebook pages collectively reach about 75 million users monthly, which is 20 times the size of the next largest Christian Facebook page.
Among Facebook's top pages for American Christians, those who have been found to be run by troll farms for misinformation campaigns by foreign actors were "Be Happy Enjoy Life," "Jesus is my Lord," "You Can," "Speak Loudly," "Purpose of Life," "Positive Quotes," "Light of the World," "Why Not Us?" "Happiness is in Your Mind," "Life is Beautiful," "Conscious Reminder," "Blessed," and "Motivational Quotes & Videos," among others.
A large portion of people who viewed and engaged wioth the posts from these page did not actually "like" or follow the pages but instead was shown to the users as content that the Facebook algorithm believed they wanted to see. Moreover, internal studies showed that divisive posts are more likely to reach a greater audience, which is why these are being used by troll farms to spread provocative information.
The study on these Facebook pages was conducted right before the 2020 U.S. presidential election, during which these troll farms were found to be targeting the same audience that Russia attempted to manipulate back in 2016 with their own Facebook misinformation campaign.
"Our platform has given the largest voice in the Christian American community to a handful of bad actors, who, based on their media production practices, have never been to church," Jeff Allen, a former senior-level data scientist at Facebook who wrote the report, explained. "This is not normal. This is not healthy. We have empowered inauthentic actors to accumulate huge followings for largely unknown purposes."
To date, Facebook has done little to address the issue of troll farms' manipulation of American citizens. What it has done, however, has cracked down on misinformation, especially in the age of COVID. However, this is a problem in and of itself as it teeters dangerously close to violating free speech rights.