早在 2016 年美国总统大选之前，一个可能的俄罗斯行政帐户就在秋千州集团中活跃，直到 2020 年 10 月，我们联系 Facebook 提出问题后才消失。
Snopes may be known for debunking urban legends, hoaxes, and folklore, but our journalistic efforts go far beyond that. Investigations into coordinated inauthentic behavior seek to expose bad actors and their methods. These stories also document patterns of the shortcomings of social media platforms, in particular when it comes to U.S. politics.
A Snopes investigation has uncovered a Facebook account, likely Russian, that managed a Pennsylvania for Trump Facebook group from April 2016 through October 2020. The discovery was made with only weeks remaining before the Nov. 3, 2020, general election.
The Facebook account had participated in the group for the key swing state ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and its activity during that year paralleled descriptions of fake personas mentioned in the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, “Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election.” Following Donald Trump’s victory in that election, the account created posts to defend Russia from accusations of foreign interference. We contacted Facebook with questions about the administrative account, and hours later it was no longer accessible.
“Gina Grin” was the name on the admin account, and it may have been an alias. We will refer to her in this story as a woman, but the identity behind the account could not be definitively confirmed. She was still active around mid-October 2020, less than a month to go before Election Day. A second account named Gina Grin Scofield also vanished the same day. Facebook did not respond to our questions about either account.
More than 6 million ballots were cast in Pennsylvania for the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Donald Trump edged out former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in that state by only 44,292 votes.
Second, we know that in 2016, Russians sought to access election systems in Pennsylvania. We also know that they staged rallies in the swing state. The New York Times reported that Russia created fake American Facebook profiles, in particular documenting the case of a fake Pennsylvania man named Melvin Redick. And The Washington Post reported that Trump won Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin “by 0.2, 0.7 and 0.8 percentage points, respectively.”
Third, on Oct. 13, 2020, Snopes reached out to Facebook about this story, and hours later, both Gina Grin accounts disappeared. In the email, we detailed the Moscow conference and other data. We also referenced a video that featured a woman speaking Russian. That video was the only one posted to a YouTube channel named Gina Grin, and other than that video, a Google search for “Gina Grin” (with quotes) showed no trace of any other people or aliases with the same name.
In our conversation with Linvill, we shared some of the red flags associated with Gina Grin’s Facebook account. He referenced the Internet Research Agency in his response.
I’m not saying this is definitely an old IRA account, but it sure as hell, you know literally everything on this checklist you gave me of things that looked suspicious to you, yeah. Appeared to pretend to live in a swing state. Check. IRA did that. Posted a celebrity profile photo and pretend to be the pictured woman. Check. IRA did that. Mirrored the profile photo. Check. I know the IRA to continue to do that. Pretended to own dogs and used pictures from Pinterest. Check. They do that. Posted links to the DNC emails. Check. Check. Check. Posted consistently negative about Hillary Clinton. Obviously check. Shared reassurances for people [unsure of voting for Trump]… I mean like all of these, even and especially the one about accidentally having a Russian page in there (Молекулярная диагностика 2021). These are run by humans. They make mistakes. I’ve seen all kinds of errors made by the Russians.
We also spoke with Nina Jankowicz, who studies disinformation with The Wilson Center, and is the author of “How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict.” We shared some of our research, and she told us that it’s “definitely suspicious that someone like this would like a Molecular Diagnostics conference page, especially if they purport to be in Pennsylvania, very strange, and you wonder if they were perhaps logged into Facebook under the troll account, and hadn’t moved back to their personal account.”
She said that while she has run into accounts like these that are run by American citizens, the “pattern of posting” for this one sounds like it stands out. “They made it look like a real person’s account that is populated by normal Facebook posts.” She also told us: “It seems to me that, there are a lot of [sleeper accounts] that fall through the cracks and this one seems to have been pretty robust. Even if this was an account based in the United States, and this person was of Russian descent, or something like that, it still seems to be a fake account and violates Facebook’s terms of service for misrepresentation. I think they need to do a lot better in these cases.”
It is unknown how far Gina Grin’s reach stretched out onto the vast Facebook landscape before both accounts were removed on Oct. 14. The person who controlled the accounts may have access to other profiles, though we were unable to find any evidence of additional accounts. What we do know for sure is that Grin was a member of at least nine Facebook groups more than four years earlier in May 2016, including Pennsylvania for Trump, the original name of the group before it was changed to Support Melania Trump. Grin was also an admin in the group New York’s Trump Train Picking Up America!! until October 2020, and was a member of Wisconsin for Trump. Wisconsin is also a swing state.
Page 80 of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report noted that ex-Trump campaign official Rick Gates recalled an Aug. 2, 2016, conversation between Konstantin Kilimnik and ex-Trump aide Paul Manafort, and that “Kilimnik wanted to know how Trump could win.” Four states were specifically mentioned by Manafort as “battleground” states: Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
The 2016 U.S. Presidential Election
Gina Grin posted more times in the Facebook group in 2016 than in any year to follow. In Pennsylvania for Trump, she shared at least 110 posts between April 21 and Election Day, Nov. 8. As reported by The Associated Press, Russian efforts were underway “to interfere in the election on Trump’s behalf.”
Grin joined Pennsylvania for Trump (now Support Melania Trump) on April 21, 2016. On the same day, she made her first post, featuring a poll showing that Donald Trump was trending to win the Republican primary. Eight days later, she shared a story from Conservative Treehouse that purported to show U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s campaign “collapsing.” The blog called the “Never Trump” campaign “ridiculous” and said of Cruz: “He’s just not a likable man.” Grin also posted a Conservative Tribune story: “BREAKING: 1 Hillary Email SHOWED Terrorists How to Kill Amb. Chris Stevens.”
According to the Senate intelligence committee report, April 2016 was the same month that ex-Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos “likely learned about the Russian active measures campaign from Joseph Mifsud.”
The Committee found Mifsud was aware of an aspect of Russia’s active measures campaign in the 2016 election and that Mifsud told Papadopoulos what he knew. The timing of Mifsud’s visit to Moscow and his subsequent conversation with Papadopoulos are consistent with the timeline of the GRU’s cyber penetration of the DNC and DCCC, several weeks before any information about that activity was public. Furthermore, the information Mifsud conveyed to Papadopoulos was consistent with the GRU’s information disclosure operations intended to damage the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.
The Republican-led committee’s report also noted: “Mifsud played a central role in Papadopoulos’s attempts to engage the Russian government on behalf of the Trump Campaign.”
By June, Gina Grin was posting more often. Page 80 of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report noted:
“Information suggests Kilimnik understood that some of the polling data showed that Clinton’s negatives were particularly high; that Manafort’s plan for victory called for focusing on Clinton’s negatives as much as possible; and that given Clinton’s high negatives, there was a chance that Trump could win.”
In June, Grin shared negative stories about “Crooked Hillary” and so-called “Clinton Foundation Scandals.”
She also posted about Trump’s polling with Black voters and stories from the far-right Gateway Pundit. One of Grin’s shares attempted to ease the minds of Republicans who were unsure of voting for Donald Trump: “If you’re voting for Donald Trump but you’re feeling anxiety about it, here’s why you can relax and vote with enthusiasm. Read this and you will feel much better.” Another 2016 share mentioning Rush Limbaugh also attempted to reassure voters of Trump’s candidacy.
On July 13, 2016, Gina Grin posted: “The surge begins – Go Trump!,” linking to the Politico story that referenced Pennsylvania: “Swing-state stunner: Trump has edge in key states.” Near the end of the month, she shared “The Hillary Recession,” a story from the conservative blog Townhall. In the same month, then-presidential candidate Trump said: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 [Hillary Clinton] emails that are missing.”
Leading into August 2016, Grin shared negative, back-to-back posts about Muslim peoples. Breitbart stories were common on Grin’s timeline, and often shared to the group as well. She posted to her profile a reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin in a small group called Bernie to Trump, with the headline: “Putin: Hacked Emails Reveal That Clinton Threatened Sanders’ Wife.” She shared a long debunked “Clinton kill list,” falsely claiming that Bill and Hillary Clinton had arranged for all 66 people on the list to be murdered. Also in August, she shared a meme from Joe Walsh that said: “I remain much more bothered by what Hillary has done than by what Trump has said.”
Gina Grin did not post in Pennsylvania for Trump between Aug. 25 and Oct. 12. It is not known why she was absent, but her return to the group occurred only six days after the Access Hollywood tape , in which Trump could be heard making demeaning sexual remarks about women, was released.
In October 2016, Grin pushed on her profile a conspiracy theory about George Soros, a wealthy backer of liberal causes. She also shared three different stories that bore similarities to three Snopes debunkings published in 2016. One of the false stories said Ohio and Pennsylvania voters were called “white trash” in a “leaked [Democratic National Committee] email.” Later in the month, she posted in Pennsylvania for Trump that she received a letter that was “sent and paid by the PA Democratic Party.”
Grin claimed: “They are targeting suburban moms like me with propaganda and lies to scare them into voting for Hillary.” A Google cache archive with the full post showed she shared her message to the Ban the Democratic Party page. One sentence in her post contained what were perhaps some telling grammatical errors, including “call Christmas a Christmas,” “stomping the American flag,” and the absence of the word “the” before “NFL tolerates disrespect”:
“I have a problem explaining to my children why it is offensive to call Christmas a Christmas, why burning and stomping the American flag is not a punishable crime, and why NFL tolerates disrespect to our National Anthem.”
On Nov. 1, Grin posted a story that claimed: “Hillary’s campaign manager is a Russian puppet!” On Nov. 2, Grin posted to the group that “intel operatives” in the United States leaked the Clinton campaign emails, “not Russia.” The source was the conspiracy theory website Infowars, and it was not the only Infowars story she shared that day. Grin also posted a link to a story falsely claiming an indictment was imminent for Hillary Clinton.
In the final days of the campaign, Grin shared a Fox News story themed on Philadelphia, plus stories from Sean Hannity’s website, Hannity.com, and 100PercentFedUp.com. On Nov. 7, the day before the election, Grin shared to her profile a post that read: “BOOM!!!! REMEMBER, we need EVERY #TRUMPVOTER to turn out tomorrow!!! #Pennsylvania.” On the same day, she also posted to the group a story about health insurance premiums rising “by roughly 33 percent on average under Hillary Clinton.” She also encouraged evangelicals to find friends to vote for Trump.
In the early morning hours of Nov. 9, 2016, Donald Trump was declared the winner in the U.S. presidential election.
Downplaying Russian Interference
On Dec. 11, 2016, Grin posted to her profile that “the pathetic Left blames Russians for hacking the election for Trump” and that: “In the liberal mind, the Russians make the best scapegoat.” On the same day, she said that blaming Russia makes “zero sense.” The next day she posted: “I voted for Trump – not Putin.” Grin also said that Obama talking about Russia was him “trying to delegitimize the man taking his place.”
On Dec. 16, Grin posted a link to Infowars, claiming the story “rips apart the narrative that Putin directly ordered Russian ‘hacking’ in the 2016 U.S. election.” She also linked to a story from American Thinker, and in doing so, continued to attempt to defend Russia following the 2016 U.S. presidential election. More stories over the coming days mentioned Russia, Pennsylvania, and Putin.
The 2018 Midterm Election
Gina Grin’s account also showed involvement in the 2018 midterm elections. In October, the account posted memes like this one referring to bombs, featuring U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters and former President Barack Obama. Another meme featured Democratic Party politicians with Soros, with the words: “They tried pipe bombs, whores, Russia collusion, migrant caravans. But they cannot stop the RED WAVE.”
In November, another meme posted by Grin encouraged the “Red Wave,” meaning the hope of a big wave of Republican voters. Another meme, posted after Democrats gained control of the U.S. House of Representatives, demanded a recount.
Support for ‘We Build The Wall’
On Dec. 19, 2018, the likely Russian admin account operating under the name Gina Grin showed support for We Build The Wall, a fundraising effort for privately funded border wall construction on the U.S.-Mexico border. She told followers and friends, “it’s legit,” directing them to “USE #GoFundTheWall as a hashtag on social media,” and shared the direct link to the GoFundMe page.
On Dec. 31, 2018, Grin posted again about the charity, this time with some grammatical errors: “Brian Kolfage’s is not afraid of the death threats. His Wall GoFundMe raises $18,449,708. I hope he decides to run for Congress soon.”
In August 2020, prosecutors arrested and charged Kolfage, former Trump White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, and others with scheming to defraud donors to fund their personal expenses and lifestyles.
The Loss of Bre Payton
In December 2018, Gina Grin politicized the tragic death of conservative writer Bre Payton. Payton wrote for The Federalist and made numerous appearances on Fox News Channel.
Grin posted: “On Friday, December 28, the 26-year-old The Federalist reporter suddenly died of the H1N1 flu. Coincidence or…not. Earlier, on December 13, Bre Payton broke a story about Mueller destroying text messages. The story was published in The Federalist.”
Grin’s attempt to push an outlandish conspiracy theory led to hundreds of shares, likely resulting in thousands of Facebook users seeing the post. One commenter responded to Grin, saying: “Someone kill that fuck Mueller.”
In fact, The Associated Press reported on Dec. 29, 2018, that Payton “died suddenly” after doctors determined that she “had H1N1 flu — also known as swine flu — and meningitis.” The conspiracy theory pushed by Grin implied foul play. That conspiracy theory was false.
The 2020 U.S. Presidential Election
In all of 2019, Gina Grin only posted seven times in the Support Melania Trump Facebook group, formerly known as Pennsylvania for Trump. On Jan. 1, 2020, Grin appeared to begin preparations for the 2020 U.S. presidential election, posting a new group cover photo on New Year’s Day. She also posted, in part: “As a reminder, the purpose of this group is to endorse and support Melania Trump as our First Lady in all of her undertakings.”
On March 28, she announced group rules. This was the same month the first spike of COVID-19 cases began in the U.S. A screenshot of Grin’s photos shows that she pushed memes about Dr. Anthony Fauci and a debunked conspiracy theory that claimed the novel coronavirus was created in a Wuhan, China, lab. She appeared to question the veracity of the U.S. COVID-19 death toll, and falsely claimed that COVID-19 stood for “Chinese Originated Viral Infectious Disease” (in reality, “CO” stands for the word “corona,” “VI” for “virus,” and “D” for “disease”).
On May 25, 2020, a Black man named George Floyd died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for roughly nine minutes. In the following days and weeks, the world saw chaotic demonstrations protesting racism and killings by police. The likely Russian Gina Grin account made several postings in response. She posted a meme that played on a Facebook feature used by people to mark themselves safe after potentially deadly events such as mass shootings and tsunamis. It read: “Marked safe from white guilt.” Her memes also mocked the idea of Black Lives Matter, the name of the movement protesting police brutality. “Here’s your hero,” read another meme that showed a picture of George Floyd and a list of his purported past offenses. One meme was a screenshot of a @NYPDTips tweet, with a caption from Grin that read: “Yeah, the police are always picking on us.”
She also called U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts a “POS” (likely because of these June 2016 votes), and supported pre-election proceedings to nominate Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court. In addition to sharing photos of the first lady as well as various news stories about her, Grin would often post about removing trolls from the group.
Grin appeared to be an active commenter throughout 2020 and posted a significant number of times on her own profiles. However, her accounts had been much more active in the Facebook group four years earlier, sharing 11 times as many posts in the group in 2016 as she did in 2020.
‘Veteran of the First Gulf War’
Gina Grin was not the only admin in the Facebook group. A person identified as Warren Potter joined the group on May 27, 2016, a little over a month after Grin became a member. In a Jan. 10, 2018 post, Potter acknowledged the work done by Gina Grin. We reached out to Potter about his experiences in the group, and he told us: “I can assure you there is absolutely no foreign influence in the Support Melania Trump group. I am very much an American as are all of the moderators and admin in the group. I as a former Boy Scout, veteran of the first Gulf War and a truck driver am as American as you can get.”
He also told us that a friend originally created the group, and that this friend eventually left Facebook because of “censorship.” Gina Grin once posted a name next to the Pennsylvania for Trump group: Jeff Vince. This may have been Potter’s friend.
Another admin account named Dale Greenland joined the group at 12:01 a.m. on Aug. 20, 2020, and appeared to become an admin on the same day. Other group managers included Susy Torres and Ron Conard.
Facebook Goes Quiet
Snopes reporters noticed in early October 2020 that the Support Melania Trump Facebook group appeared to be unavailable. On Oct. 11, Snopes reached out to Facebook, asking if the platform had taken action on the group. On Oct. 13, Facebook responded, saying that no action had been taken on Support Melania Trump.
This was the only response that Snopes received from Facebook for this story.
Snopes independently confirmed that the Support Melania Trump Facebook group, formerly named Pennsylvania for Trump, was still active. It had not been removed. An admin had switched the group’s visibility to “Hidden,” meaning that only members could find it. Admin Potter claimed that the group was switched to this status to slow the flow of new members and pending posts since admins didn’t have time to manage the group as it grew larger and larger. “All of the admins have jobs and families and none of us have the countless hours it takes to do it.”
Snopes reached out to Facebook again later in the day on Oct. 13, asking about Gina Grin’s accounts and the connections to Russia, adding that the group was once targeted at swing state voters in Pennsylvania. As mentioned before, Gina Grin’s accounts disappeared hours after we sent this second email to Facebook. Facebook appeared to have removed both accounts.
In two later emails on Oct. 15 and 16, we asked Facebook if Support Melania Trump was still active, since there is no way of knowing, without being a member, if a hidden group is still active. We also asked if Facebook had a statement regarding the accounts for Gina Grin. Facebook did not respond to either email.
In our conversation with Nina Jancowicz, she said that she believes Facebook groups are the “underexplored angle on all of foreign interference right now,” and that “it’s underexplored, in part, because the platforms make it really difficult to explore.”
The group admin hid the group, so it was a secret group, and if you’re not in the group you can’t see what’s going on in it. […] In reality, it’s still relying on user reports to be tipped off about that data, and so without researchers or reporters that are looking at this stuff, there’s a lot that they won’t find.
Jancowicz added: “Things like this are really difficult to track, and we shouldn’t be doing Facebook’s work for them.” In the past, journalists have exposed accounts, pages, and groups that violate the company’s Community Standards. We asked her if Facebook perhaps lacks a proactive approach to finding content that violates its policies. She told us she believes the platform “just does not have the capacity or perhaps the political will, in some cases, to do this active research, basically.”
Gina Grin’s accounts disappeared only after Snopes asked Facebook about their likely connection to Russia, and this was only 20 days before the 2020 U.S. presidential election. One of the accounts was an admin in an American swing state Facebook group for more than four years, across nearly two U.S. presidential elections and one midterm. One of Grin’s viral disinformation posts was shared 149,000 times. It was even fact-checked by FactCheck.org and cited in a Utah Law Review paper.
It’s likely that the activity created by Gina Grin’s accounts reached millions of Americans between 2016 and 2020.
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