U.S. Congress asks Facebook: What role did fake overseas accounts have in promoting Canada convoys?

U.S. Congress has asked Facebook: Who used fake overseas accounts to promote Canada's protest convoys? The chair of a powerful committee sent a letter to company founder Mark Zuckerberg that mentions past Russian behaviour as a concern.

Lawmakers demanded answers in letter that mentions Russia. Facebook says it will co-operate

A man is pictured with a microphone near his face.
Mark Zuckerberg, head of Facebook parent company Meta Platforms, seen during past testimony before a U.S. congressional committee, has been asked by U.S. Congress to provide details about how many fake Facebook accounts were created by foreign actors to help promote Canada's convoy protests. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

This item is part of Watching Washington, a regular dispatch from CBC News correspondents reporting on U.S. politics and developments that affect Canadians. 

What's new

American politicians are demanding details from Facebook about how many fake online accounts created by foreign actors helped promote Canada's convoy protests.

The chair of the most powerful investigative body in the U.S. House of Representatives this week sent a letter to company founder Mark Zuckerberg seeking information about inauthentic activity.

New York Democrat Carolyn Maloney asked Zuckerberg nine questions about the extent to which fake accounts from abroad helped organizers spread the word.

The questions include, how many fake accounts Facebook identified related to the "Freedom Convoy"; when it determined they were fake; how many people saw that content; what country it originated from; what countries it was spread in; and how much money Facebook made from associated ads.

What's the context

The letter expressed alarm over reports that Facebook had discovered that some groups promoting the convoys had been created by fake user profiles, which were set up in content farms in Vietnam, Bangladesh and Romania.

She identified Russia as having in the past used fake social-media profiles to spread content that polarized Americans, a practice described in one chapter of the Mueller report into 2016 U.S. election interference.

"These reports are particularly alarming given Facebook's history of amplifying toxic content, extremism, and disinformation, including from Russia and other foreign actors," Maloney, chair of the House Oversight and Reform committee, wrote in the letter dated Feb. 14.

WATCH | Convoy protesters manipulated by foreign agents, says cybersecurity expert:

Convoy protesters manipulated by foreign agents, says cybersecurity expert

1 year ago
Duration 3:40
Protests in support of the truck convoy in Ottawa are being held across the county, and cybersecurity expert David Shipley believes those involved are being directed by foreign agents.

"Utilizing fake, stolen, or inauthentic accounts has become a common technique by those promoting disinformation campaigns and social engineering efforts, particularly foreign entities.

"Russia operated Facebook accounts and pages to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, including using stolen identities of Americans. These Russian-operated accounts and pages had their content shared hundreds of millions of times leading up to the election."

A former official in the State Department and Department of Defence under George W. Bush, Kristofer Harrison, said in an interview that Russia uses dummy profiles to promote all sorts of polarizing content across the political spectrum, from Black Lives Matter and defunding the police to white supremacists and yellow-vest protests.

"They just want the loudest mess possible," said Harrison, a Russia analyst.

Police officers on horses ride beside Rideau Centre amid continuing protests in Ottawa on Friday. The protests had lots of real-life, human support, closer to home, drawing record crowdfunding donations from Canada and the U.S. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

What's next

There is no evidence of Russian involvement in Canada. Or of any state actor being involved in promoting the convoy protests, which ultimately received record-smashing donations from thousands of real people, primarily in Canada and the U.S. 

Facebook told NBC News earlier this month that it had deleted some pro-convoy groups run by overseas actors. They did not say how many and from where.

We could know more if Facebook responds to the questions from U.S. congressional Democrats, and both sides expressed hope of co-operation.

The committee is confident that Facebook will provide the information, said one Washington source. Facebook, meanwhile, confirmed to CBC News that it had received the letter and would respond in writing.

The social-media giant said it also looked forward to meeting with committee staff to answer their questions and provide updates on the issue.