Audience-building via Facebook groups

Pennsylvania Senator Doug Mastriano seems to be building a Facebook army.

I stumbled upon a newly created network of Facebook groups supporting Pennsylvania Senator Doug Mastriano, consisting of groups representing 39 counties in PA. It’s a tactic reminiscent of the proliferation of anti-lockdown Facebook groups we saw early on in the pandemic when people began protesting mitigation efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus.

The groups are admin’ed by real people who appear to be volunteers for Mastriano. Senator Mastriano is also an admin in most of the Facebook groups, so he’s aware of these groups and involved at some level in their management.

The iterative nature of the network has the optics of astroturfing — efforts that are intended to look like “grassroots” support but are actually run by a political campaign. In most cases, political astroturfing tries to hide the source of the activity. But with this network, it appears to be administered by Senator Mastriano himself and a small group of volunteers.

It’s unclear if this activity goes against Facebook community standards. What Facebook defines as coordinated inauthentic behavior (CIB) is somewhat nebulous and as Shannon McGregor wrote recently in Wired, “the line between ‘coordinated behavior’ and campaign activity, as defined by the platforms, is blurred.”

I manually collected data on 45 Facebook groups supporting Senator Mastriano. The 39 Facebook groups that are targeting individual counties in PA have about 3,900 members in total. Mastriano’s personal Facebook account is an admin in 34 of the county-specific groups.

This network is still relatively small in size, several groups share the same admins and it’s likely there is some overlap with group membership.

Note: As I was writing this blog, about half of the county-specific groups disappeared. I can’t tell if they were deleted by the group creator(s), removed by Facebook or possibly made secret. Several other county groups changed their names.

PA County Facebook group inventory

When I began researching this network I looked at the creation dates of each group:

  • 21 Facebook groups were created in Sept 2020
  • 11 Facebook groups were created in Oct 2020
  • 7 Facebook groups were created in Nov 2020

The repetition in the network is obvious and looks spammy.

I looked at several additional Facebook groups and pages including groups called “Senator Doug Mastriano, We the people ask you to run for governor!” (14,500 members) and “Draft Senator Douglas Mastriano for Governor of Pennsylvania” (2,400 members) and a Facebook page called “Doug Mastriano for Governor 2022” that was created in July 2020 and has 2,491 fans. Mastriano is an admin of both of those groups.

Although Mastriano has not formally announced plans to run for PA governor, this new network of Facebook groups seems like an audience-building strategy for a future, statewide political campaign.

I manually recorded all of the admins for 40 of the groups and found that many of the groups have admins in common; the same people are running multiple Facebook groups simultaneously. Some of the admin accounts look like duplicates or backup accounts — one person who is an admin in various groups makes a backup account that is also an admin in the same groups so if one of their accounts gets locked, they still have access to their groups via the backup account. Other admins look like they might be related to each other. For example, a husband and wife are both admins of the York County Facebook group and judging by their Facebook profiles, both are fans of Senator Mastriano.

In total, I found over 60 admins running 45 Facebook groups although the largest group, Patriots Support Sen. Mastriano ( real ), has 17 admins. Most of the groups have 3 to 5 admins. 19 people are admins for multiple groups. A core team of 8 people plus Senator Mastriano are admins of 3 or more Facebook groups.

So this network of Facebook groups is definitely coordinated. The admins know each other, many of them are Facebook friends, and Senator Mastriano even interacts with some of them publicly on Facebook. The same posts are shared to multiple groups around the same times. But is it “inauthentic?”

A few of the admin profiles are definitely duplicate (fake) accounts, but a lot of them appear to be real people. It’s strange to make your Facebook network look like astroturf, maybe it’s not intentional and copy pasting the same posts was just an efficient way to set up and manage a large network. But it’s an interesting strategy if you are a politician looking to establish a statewide network of supporters.

Senator Mastriano already had a sizable footprint on Facebook. In total, I found the 39 county-specific groups with 3,919 members collectively, 6 additional Facebook groups that have 37,156 members and 4 Facebook pages that have 227,189 fans, including Mastriano’s verified government page that has 142,236 fans at the time of writing.

Again, it’s hard to tell how much overlap exists between group members and Facebook page fans but as of November 28 when I gathered the data for this blog, Senator Mastriano had an audience of about 260,000 people on Facebook.

His audience is growing exponentially. On November 25th, Mastriano organized a press conference with Rudy Giuliani at a hotel in Gettysburg to present supposed “evidence” of electoral fraud. The event made national news and President Trump called in to the meeting after having to cancel his in-person appearance due to someone on his legal team testing positive for Covid. Mastriano later tweeted a misleading screenshot of PA vote counts he claimed was deleted from the PA Dept of State website and that tweet was retweeted by Trump. Mastriano also did media appearances on Fox & Friends, Newsmax and Steve Bannon’s War Room and Mastriano was boosted by various right wing social media influencers since the meeting in Gettysburg.

Before publishing this blog, news broke that Senator Mastriano tested positive for Covid-19 and abruptly left a meeting with President Trump after being told he had tested positive.

I will continue to monitor this Facebook network and post any updates here.

The Gephi graph in this blog was created using OpenOrd combined with Force Atlas 2 layout algorithms.

Social media researcher, multimedia artist