On the surface, the Facebook page had all the markings of an authentic Black Lives Matter group.
Its profile picture — "BLACK LIVES MATTER" in block text against a bright yellow background — echoed the style and colors of the one used on Blacklivesmatter.com.
The "Black Lives Matter"-emblazoned merchandise sold through the Facebook page all benefited related causes.
And it had nearly 700,000 followers, making it the largest Facebook page affiliated with the movement.
Or so people thought.
As it turns out, the page was apparently a fraud, tied to an Australian man who had also registered dozens of other domain names related to black civil rights causes, according to a CNN investigation. And it remained in operation for more than a year, despite multiple efforts to warn Facebook that the page might be fraudulent.
The alleged "Black Lives Matter" Facebook page also brought in at least US$100,000 in donations through third-party online fundraisers such as PayPal and Patreon, CNN reported. But the network's investigation found some of that money was deposited into Australian bank accounts, and that at least one online fundraising account was linked to Ian Mackay, an official with the National Union of Workers, an Australian trade union.
When contacted by CNN, Mackay, who is white, denied he administered the page. He also brushed off questions about several other websites — with names such as blackpowerfist.com and blacklivesmatter.media — that were registered to him, and which the "Black Lives Matter" Facebook page had occasionally promoted.
"I once bought the domain name only and sold it," Mackay told CNN, referring to one such website that had been registered to him. "My domain name buying and selling is a personal hobby."
As of today, however, the page apparently has been taken down. Online fundraisers previously associated with the page have also been disabled, and third-party payment companies such as Classy, Donorbox, PayPal and Patreon all told CNN they had cut ties with the page.
Mackay resigned from his job at the National Union of Workers, according to the Guardian. The trade union said in a statement that it was investigating Mackay's alleged association with the fraudulent Facebook page.
"The NUW is not involved in and has not authorised any activities with reference to claims made in CNN's story," the union told the newspaper.
CNN's report came as Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg prepared to testify before Congress about the social media platform's role in spreading fake news and its responsibility to protect its users' data from third-party apps, particularly after the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal.
According to prepared remarks, Zuckerberg planned to acknowledge Facebook's dark side today as he addressed lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
"It's clear now that we didn't do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well," Zuckerberg's prepared remarks stated. "That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy. We didn't take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I'm sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I'm responsible for what happens here."
Zuckerberg's apologetic tone and vow to change, however, were not reflected in Facebook's response to the fake "Black Lives Matter" page, according to CNN and others who had tried to warn the social media platform earlier about the possible scam.
One of the founders of the real Black Lives Matter Facebook page, which has a blue verified check mark and about 300,000 followers, said the organisation contacted Facebook months ago to report concerns that the page with the larger following was fraudulent, to no avail. And last December, a blogger named Jeremy Massler called out the fake "Black Lives Matter" page as "probably a sham" and drew connections between it and Mackay.
Massler dubbed the fake page "BlackLivesMatter1″ after its user name.
"BlackLivesMatter1 doesn't try to organise rallies or affect politics. Instead, their mission is to expose racism, and they accomplish that by sharing stories on social media. In theory, it's an admirable goal, but parts of the presentation made me suspicious," Massler wrote. "My hunch is that whoever currently runs BlackLivesMatter1 is trying to make some money off the back of the Black Lives Matter movement. Still, I'm surprised the page has flown under the media's radar when you consider the current political climate."
The Facebook page went down briefly after Massler reported on it, according to CNN.
In Brian Stelter's media newsletter "Reliable Sources", CNN reporter Donie O'Sullivan explained that CNN presented its findings about the fake "Black Lives Matter" page to Facebook last week, but the company initially dismissed concerns by saying the page did not violate its "community standards." Facebook also did not divulge whether more traffic had been driven to the bogus page through Facebook ads.
Facebook confirmed that the page has been taken down.
"Not for the first time, Facebook took action against a major bad actor on its site not on its own but because journalists made inquiries," O'Sullivan told Stelter. "The discovery raises a lot of Q's about how Facebook polices its platform — if it can't figure out there is something up with the biggest 'BLM' account, with almost 700,000 followers, why should we trust it to find other fakes?"
Black Lives Matter did not immediately respond to questions sent by email.