Who is posting in your local news group?

An internet security expert and some social media news group administrators say it appears a fake account has been active in New Brunswick and could be trying to stir up division ahead of the federal election.

Activity in Bathurst Newschasers social media group could be the work of a bot account

An account under the name Will Johnson, left, has made suspicious posts to the Facebook group Bathurst Newschasers this month. On Monday, the account got a new name, Johnson Willy, and a new profile picture. (Will Johnson/Johnson Willy/Facebook)

People who get their news from social media groups say one of the things they like about it is there are no filters.

It's news by the people for the people.

But a recent series of posts in one or more New Brunswick groups on Facebook has raised concerns that they can also be vulnerable to abuse by outside actors with unknown motives.

The posts were made by an account that is likely a fake, according to an internet security expert and the administrators of some Facebook news groups, and the activity is consistent with tactics used by bot accounts for anything from attention-seeking to political interference.

Starting in early February, an account under the name Will Johnson began posting to the group Bathurst Newschasers. On Monday, the account name changed to Johnson Willy.

Side-by-side images of posts Will Johnson made to the What's Up Grand Forks BC? Facebook group and Bathurst Newschasers. Underscoring added by CBC to draw attention to the similar phone numbers with different area codes. (Will Johnson/Facebook)

Johnson's profile page says he is self-employed, studied at the University of British Columbia and lives in Vancouver.

There are only a couple of posts visible on the page, and they only date back to August.

Johnson has no apparent connection to Bathurst.

Some of the posts to the Bathurst Newschasers group were rants about parenting issues, like smoking around children.

"Do y'all know how embarrassing it is for your child to smell like a pack of Marlboro or Newports in a box?!" said part of one post, referring to two popular U.S. brands of cigarette.

A few of the posts contained negative messages about minority groups, specifically Muslims, Indigenous people and the LGBTQ community.

And one post said Johnson had found a lost cat that appeared to be injured. Some other members of the news group pointed out that this post was identical to one that had also been made by Will Johnson to a news group in Grand Forks, B.C., only the phone number to call had a different area code.

This collage shows posts Will Johnson has made to social media groups in many areas of Canada and the United States. (Facebook)

The number with the New Brunswick area code is not in service.

A call to the B.C. number went to a voice mailbox with no name in the greeting. CBC News has yet to receive a reply to a message left Thursday.

Neither has Will Johnson replied to a Facebook message from CBC News.

"It's fake," said Amanda Jones, an administrator of the group Mostly Moncton Scanner and News. "I'm sure it's a fake."

Jones said Johnson attempted to join that group but was refused because she had seen what she considered suspicious activity by him in a number of other groups.

"I was already on to him," she said.

Beauceron Security CEO David Shipley says the activity is consistent with a fake account by someone trying to sow discord. (Jennifer Sweet/CBC)

CBC News uncovered posts by Will Johnson to a dozen other groups in the United States and Canada. (This doesn't include any groups that have blocked him or deleted his posts.) Some of them were identical to posts he made to the Bathurst group but had been posted in October. 

"The description we used to use was an internet troll," said David Shipley, CEO of Beauceron Security in Fredericton.

Shipley called the duplicated posts by Johnson "highly suspicious," but said it's becoming increasingly difficult to spot fake accounts.

Some of the telltale signs are that it's only been around for a short period, little information is shared, and the number of friends is low.

I don't think it's healthy for us. … Social media may be as bad for individuals and society as smoking. - David Shipley

"The problem over the last five years is that internet trolling can be weaponized," said Shipley.

"We're seeing groups like alt-right groups … right up to political activists, hacktivists and nation-states who are weaponizing these activities to cause dissent or to move forward with specific agendas."

"And the playbook is now proliferating … down to individual thrill-seekers who just want to cause chaos," he said.

Canada's Communications Security Establishment has flagged all of these as threats to Canadian democracy.

Shipley said the Will Johnson posts could indicate someone experimenting or laying the groundwork to try to interfere in the upcoming federal election.

A report by the Communications Security Establishment says adversaries from the nation-state level down to individual thrill-seekers are using social media in ways that threaten Canadian democracy. (Jennifer Sweet/CBC)

The posts targeting people who are Muslim, Indigenous or transgender could be intended to stir people up and cause division, he said.

In a similar way, Russian bot accounts have been found to stoke both sides of the Black Lives Matter campaign in the United States, and both sides of pipeline and immigration issues in Canada, said Shipley.

Posts about hot-button issues can also be used by people with extreme views to find others who share their values.

"Then they can communicate and collaborate and organize … which is concerning. 

"We don't know if it's tapping veins of longstanding issues … or if it's being fuelled by others with their own agendas."

Three-quarters of Canadians are now getting their news online, said Shipley, and Canadian political discourse has become increasingly vitriolic.

Amanda Jones, one of the administrators of the group Mostly Moncton Scanner and News, says Will Johnson was refused membership because of what she considered suspicious activity online. (Amanda Jones/Facebook)

He sees a connection to the fact that the social media platforms now delivering much of the news are not licensed or controlled by organizations that hold other news organizations to account.

"They need to be scrutinized and regulated," said Shipley.

"I don't think it's healthy for us. … Social media may be as bad for individuals and society as smoking."

For local news group administrators who find themselves thrust into the role of editorial decision-making, the way they deal with cases such as Will Johnson varies.

Amanda Jones said Mostly Moncton Scanner and News has a screening process for new members. Anyone who hasn't been on Facebook for at least a year is not accepted. They also check for mutual acquaintances.

When administrators of "What's Up Grand Forks BC?" were made aware the post about the found cat had been duplicated, they deleted it and blocked Will Johnson.

Meanwhile, the administrators of Bathurst Newschasers have not responded to inquiries from CBC News, and Will Johnson's posts to that group have not been deleted.

Johnson made a new post to the group as recently as Thursday.

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