ICE Used Fake Facebook Profiles to Prosecute Immigrants—Seems Facebook Missed That 'Inauthentic Behavior'

Photo: John Moore (Getty)

Facebook has again taken minimal action to hinder a coordinated inauthentic behavior from deceptive actors targeting a specific demographic of people.

In this case, the deceptive actors in question were U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, and the targeted demographic was Indian citizens in the U.S. on student visas.

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And Facebook only took action once The Guardian inquired about the matter during its reporting for an investigation published Thursday about ICE police breaking Facebook rules by creating fake profiles linked to University of Farmington—the sham institution ICE created as an elaborate sting operation to catch students enrolling in a fake school. The sting nabbed more than 600 people, mostly Indian citizens.

ICE created the fake university in 2015, though it mostly existed online in the form of a fake website. An indictment filed in January shows the government claimed enrolling students knew the school was fake, and wanted to use it to maintain their visa status. But in February, the Detroit Free Press reported on emails that showed how the fake university lured and seemingly deceived enrolling students.

At the time Amer Zahr, a University of Detroit-Mercy adjunct law professor and a spokesperson for the detained enrollees told the Free Press that the emails showed ICE was going after legitimate students. “It seems quite clear the scheme was set up by the government not to go after legitimate offenders, but to create fear in our immigration system,” Zahr told the Free Press. “This is who they’re choosing to go after? It’s really disturbing.”

The Guardian’s investigation reportedly uncovered a new element of the scheme: fake Facebook profiles created by ICE. The newspaper reports that in a network of unusual accounts associated with the fake university, it found a profile for the alleged college president Ali “AJ” Milani. The Guardian also found that someone listed as Carey Ferrante used three stock photos for their profile images and interacted with people interested in the school. Those two accounts were friends with several other apparently fake accounts.

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Edward Bajoka, an attorney for one of the people criminally indicted from the University of Farmington sting confirmed to The Guardian that the accounts for Ali “AJ” Milani and Carey Ferrante were owned by the government.

ICE did not respond to a Gizmodo request for comment. An ICE communications director would not comment to The Guardian due to the ongoing investigation, but said that 172 students have been arrested.

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Facebook did not respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment on whether Facebook was aware the profiles associated with the University of Farmington were fake or if Facebook seeks out inauthentic behavior associated with U.S. law enforcement investigations.

A Facebook representative told The Guardian that the company does not allow fake accounts and takes action on accounts that break that rule.“Law enforcement authorities, like everyone else, are required to use their real names on Facebook and we make this policy clear on our public-facing Law Enforcement Guidelines page,” the Facebook spokesperson told The Guardian.

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Since the 2016 election, Facebook has been on a campaign to prove it is diligently fighting the spread of disinformation on its platform, and removing accounts engaging in“coordinated inauthentic behavior.” But so far that has mostly referred to politically motivated groups, most of which are foreign agents. It’s enforcement has often led to it casting a sweeping net to deactivate accounts that it finds are related to the offenders of its policies. It’s unclear if Facebook will apply the same standard to ICE and its agents.

Once The Guardian reached out to Facebook for comment, the company removed the reportedly fake Milani and Ferrante accounts, as well as three other suspicious accounts that were apparently linked to the operation. A Facebook representative told The Guardian the company had alerted the Department of Homeland Security’s policy on fraudulent accounts.

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[The Guardian]

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About the author

Jennings Brown

Senior editor and reporter at Gizmodo