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Facebook shuts down hundreds of accounts ahead of midterms; political groups cry foul

On Thursday, Facebook said it shut down 251 accounts for breaking rules against spam and coordinated deceit, some of it by ad farms pretending to be forums for political debate. The move came as the leading social network strives to prevent the platform from being used to sow division and spread misinformation ahead of U.S. midterm elections in November. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Facebook announced Thursday that it would be shutting down 559 pages and 251 accounts for breaking the firm's rules against spam. The company said it was the largest domestic purge it has ever conducted related to political influence — impacting groups on the left and the right just weeks ahead of the Nov. 6 midterm elections.

Now, publishers are crying foul, claiming Facebook's actions against political pages somehow violate the groups' free speech rights.

What are the details?

In a joint statement issued by its head of cybersecurity policy and product manager, Facebook explained that it was getting rid of fake accounts and clickbait posts that use "sensational political content" to drive traffic to seemingly-legitimate websites that are actually ad farms.

But several publishers are speaking out, denying any rule violations and arguing that private companies should be compelled to protect political speech on social media.

The New York Times reported that one of the casualties of Facebook's purge was the account for conservative group Right Wing News, which had a following of more than 3.1 million people on the social media platform.

The Times said that it was unable to reach Right Wing News founder John Hawkins for comment, but he tweeted in response to the article: "I have not been involved with running the Right Wing News facebook page this year, I have not set up facebook pages under another name & there were no calls/emails that I received from the NYT. Please correct."

Hawkins went on to berate the Times for its "shoddy reporting," adding, "I'd say a lot of skepticism (of the article) is warranted."

How did other publishers react?

Chris Metcalf, publisher of left-leaning "Reasonable People Unite" confirmed to The Washington Post that his site had been shut down by Facebook, and he denied any wrongdoing.

"I am a legitimate political activist," Metcalf said, "I don't have a clickbait blog. I don't have a fake news website. And I haven't been doing anything that all the other pages in this space aren't doing."

"Reasonable People Unite" had 2.25 million followers before Facebook shuttered it.

Another left-wing account, Reverb Press, also saw its page removed. Publisher James Reader told the Post that Facebook was "changing the rules as they went."

"This is what the First Amendment is all about," Reader said. "It should be fair, equal playing field, that's all we ever ask for."

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