On May 15, the fact-checking mavens at Snopes exposed a very large and very insidious web of Facebook pages spewing hard-right, pro-Donald Trump propaganda–with a heavy dose of conspiracy theory and Islamophobia. Among other things, these pages claimed that the Parkland kids were part and parcel of a “leftist-Islamic payroll,” and suggested the fire that nearly destroyed Notre-Dame-de-Paris was an Islamist plot.
These pages made it appear that this right-wing bile had wide-ranging support among the American people, with names like “Blacks for Trump,” “Catholics for Trump,” and “Teachers for Trump.” Between them, these 24 pages had over 1.4 million followers. In truth, however, they all had very close ties to veteran religious right activist Kelly Munroe Kullberg.
Ten of the pages were listed on the Website of a Kullberg project, Christians for Trump. Donations to Christians for Trump went to an address in Columbus, Ohio shared with another Kullberg organization, the American Association of Evangelicals–best known for putting out a scurrilous video rehashing every smear under the sun about liberal megadonor George Soros. The other 14 pages were listed as “projects” of another Kullberg organization, The America Conservancy.
All of this led Snopes to conclude that the Kullberg web blatantly violated Facebook’s rules against “coordinated inauthentic behavior“–a seven-dollar term for astroturfing. Watch Facebook cybersecurity chief Nathaniel Gleicher explain it here.
Late last year, Facebook spiked a number of pages with ties to Russian and Iranian interests for violating this rule. Watch here.
Joshua Tucker of New York University, an expert on online disinformation, believed Facebook would have taken down Kullberg’s pages just as quickly had this been a Russian project rather than something operated out of Kullberg’s base in Columbus. But it turns out that Kullberg had been astroturfing for longer than that. Snopes discovered that a number of pages in her web had been active as early as 2012, and initially had pro-Mitt Romney content. In other words, Kullberg engaged in disinformation long before it was even a term.
Well, it appears that Kullberg’s seven-year astroturfing campaign may be over, at least for now. On Sunday, Snopes discovered that all 24 Kullberg-related pages appeared to have been taken down. It was not initially clear whether Facebook nuked them or Kullberg and her minions nuked them.
However, as of Monday morning, at least three Kullberg-related sites–Christians for Trump, the American Association of Evangelicals, and the America Conservancy–are all down for “maintenance.” Kullberg has taken her personal Twitter feed private.
One has to wonder–did the publicity lead Kullberg and friends to try to scrub any evidence of their astroturfing from the Web? After all, if Facebook had nuked those pages, nine times out of ten Kullberg and friends would be following what has become a standard script for diehard Trump supporters–wring their hands about how Mark Zuckerberg and those evil, evil libruls are out to silence conservatives.
I spoke with Snopes’ Alex Kasprak, who led the investigation. He thinks there’s another possibility–that Kullberg is “trying to rebrand all her pages and maintain followers” in the face of the scrutiny.
In either case, if they believed they could simply make their previous campaign disappear into the ether, they have badly miscalculated. Snopes has numerous receipts–as Kasprak put it, “it’s all saved 10 times over.” Additionally, the original Websites live on at the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. In other words–if Kullberg has dived, she’d better prepare to be boarded once or if she surfaces.
It cannot be stated enough–this so-called Christian astroturfing web stayed under the radar for at least seven years. That’s an eternity in Internet terms, especially in the social media era. And in the space of just two weeks, it’s either been dismantled or forced into hiding.
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