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Alex Kaplan

Author ››› Alex Kaplan
  • Here is the right-wing misinformation going around on Election Day

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    As Election Day gets underway in the 2018 midterm elections, right-wing misinformation and hoaxes are targeting voters on social media platforms -- including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube -- and via text messages. The right-wing misinformation campaigns include hoaxes about Democrats burning flags, lies about a gubernatorial candidate buying votes, and followers of the conspiracy theory QAnon fearmongering about violent anti-fascist groups targeting voters.

    Here are some examples:

    Alex Jones promoted conspiracy theories about noncitizen and dead Democratic voters on Bitchute. During a broadcast published November 6 on Bitchute, a YouTube alternative, Jones said that polling indicates a “major red wave” and claimed without evidence that “they have caught people from Texas to Maryland, Democrats organizing illegal aliens to have mailed to their address absentee ballots in the name of dead people still on the rolls,” asking, “Will the Democrats be able to steal another election?”

    In Florida, some voters got a text from someone impersonating a campaign staffer for Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum. The text made misleading and false claims about Gillum’s campaign promises, including that he will "raise taxes on anyone making over $25,000 a year." As the Tampa Bay Times reported, Democrats have not proposed adding a state income tax (Florida does not current have one), and Gillum particularly has “repeatedly said that he wouldn’t propose” one. The text also mischaracterized Gillum’s position that “there is a racial element to the application” of Florida’s “stand your ground” law, falsely claiming he called it “a racist ideology.”

    A member of Facebook group Drain The Swamp claimed that a report showed 1.7 million California voters were not registered.

    A Twitter account posted a hoax video showing Democrats burning flags to celebrate a “blue wave.” From The Daily Beast:

    One fake video that’s getting circulation on both Facebook and Twitter today purports to show CNN anchor Don Lemon laughing as Democrats burn flags in a celebration of the “blue wave.”

    Twitter pulled the video from its site around 11:00 a.m. on Tuesday, although it’s still on Facebook.

    The video, which claims to be a scene from CNN’s “Reliable Sources” comes complete with a CNN-style chyron: "Dems celebrate 'Blue Wave' Burning Flags on Election Day." The original version of the video has was viewed nearly 55,000 views on Twitter since being posted Monday, with the tweet promoting it retweeted nearly 5,000 times.

    The video appears to have been first posted by Twitter user “@RealDanJordan,” who said it was a reason to vote for Republican candidates.

    The same Twitter account pushed memes telling men to skip voting in order to help Democrats.

    A user of the neighborhood social network Nextdoor posted false voter information.

    Trolls claiming to be from the Russian Internet Research Agency have been spamming reporters offering to give an inside scoop on their operations.​

    Users of different social media platforms are attempting to revive a false claim from 2016 that billionaire philanthropist George Soros owns a specific brand of voting machines.

    A member of Facebook group Brian Kemp For Georgia Governor claimed without any proof that Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams is “buying votes.”​

    A 4chan account encouraged fellow users to post on Twitter a meme falsely claiming people can vote by text.​

    Conspiracy theorist “Q” encouraged supporters to be vigilant about voter fraud at the polls. On the anonymous message board 8chan, the anonymous poster known as “Q” encouraged supporters of the absurd “deep state” conspiracy theory to be vigilant about voter fraud at the polls. The conspiracy theorist pushed vague allegations of widespread voter fraud across the U.S. and stated that during the election, “uniformed and non-uniformed personnel will be stationed across the country in an effort to safeguard the public.”

    A QAnon-themed YouTube channel posted a video echoing Q’s voter fraud conspiracy theories. As of this writing, the video had more than 43,300 views.

    A pro-Trump Facebook page spread similar claims that fearmongered about election fraud. The page posted a screenshot from the original 8chan post that had been taken from that YouTube video:

    In a QAnon Facebook group, one user claimed that voting machines in Pennsylvania were switching votes for non-Democratic candidates into votes for Democratic candidates.

    Natalie Martinez, Timothy Johnson, and Melissa Ryan contributed research to this piece.​

  • The far-right false flag narrative over the attempted bombings of Democrats was all over talk radio

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN & JOHN KERR


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    The far-right conspiracy theory that the several explosive devices sent to Democratic Party figures and progressives who have criticized President Donald Trump spread widely on talk radio shows around the country. Far-right figures started pushing the claim soon after the news broke, and it spread widely on social media. A suspect has since been arrested whose social media presence is filled with far-right conspiracy theories and memes.

    A review of radio shows and stations around the country found numerous hosts suggesting that the incidents were a “false flag” operation and some kind of liberal plot to frame conservatives:

    • Radio host Brian Kilmeade: “A lot of people said” it was a false flag “right away” and “people are like don’t trust anything they see right now. Things aren’t as they appear.”

    • Radio host Rush Limbaugh: “Republicans just don't do this kind of thing.”

    • Radio host Michael Savage: “It's a high probability that the whole thing is set up as a false flag to gain sympathy for the Democrats number one, and number two, to get our minds off the hordes of illegal aliens approaching our southern border. Yes, that is what I'm saying.”

    • Radio host Lars Larson: “It may be just a false flag.”

    • SiriusXM’s The Wilkow Majority with Andrew Wilkow: “I am still in the camp that this is a false flag until proven otherwise.”

    • Texas syndicated radio host Chris Salcedo: It is “very plausible” that it is a false flag.

    • Syndicated The Kate Dalley Show, which is part of TheBlaze Radio Network: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year. It’s the false flaggy time of the year.”

    • Baltimore, Maryland talk station WCBM-AM’s The Bruce Elliott Show: “Is this some loon or is this simply a false flag operation? We’ll find out, I would hope. Something tells me we may not find out until after the election, but we will find out.”

    • Fairbanks, Alaska talk station KFAR-AM’s The Michael Dukes Show: “Is it a false flag? I don’t know. … From a propaganda viewpoint, it would make sense that if it was a false flag … Is it to discredit some right-wing [group]?”

    • Atlanta, Georgia talk station WYAY-FM’s The Mike Brooks Show: “Could it be a false flag? … Could it be possibly a Democrat who’s sending these to them?”

    • Lexington, Kentucky talk station WVLK-AM’s Larry Glover Live: “I wouldn’t be entirely stunned if this were a false flag.”

    • Cincinnati, Ohio talk station WLW-AM’s Mike McConnell: “Yes it does -- it does bear all the resemblance of a false flag.”

    • Houston, Texas talk station KNTH-AM’s Sam Malone Show: “Talking about the alleged bombs or whatever they were sent to Democrats. Was it an act of violence? Was it a false flag? A lot of suspicions, a lot of eyebrows raised in this situation.”

    • Greenville, South Carolina talk station WYRD-AM’s The Tara Show: “That will be interesting, won’t it,” if it was “an inside false flag job.”

    • Greenville, South Carolina talk station WYRD-AM’s Bob McClain Show: “I don’t totally discount the fact that” these incidents could be a “false flag operation” because “everything else the left has tried has failed. … So is it possible this is part of an October surprise from the left? I don’t discount anything at this point.”

    • Richmond, Virginia talk station WRVA-AM’s John Reid: “I don’t want to be a conspiracy theorist, but I mean this could be a false flag situation possibly.”

    • Detroit, Michigan talk station WJR-AM’s The Frank Beckmann Show: It’s “interesting” that “there’s always something it seems that keeps” the headlines of Trump’s achievements “off the front page.”

    • Anderson, South Carolina talk station WAIM-AM’s Rick Driver Show: “These bombs” are “nothing more than false flag,” and “folks on the left are extremely desperate -- anything to disrupt the ship. Anything to get rid of the president. Anything.”

    • Quincy, Massachusetts talk station WMEX-AM’s Renegade Radio: “It absolutely is” a false flag.

    • Aurora, Colorado talk station KNUS-AM’s Peter Boyles Show: “My personal belief at this time: This is a false flag, this is a Reichstag fire.”

    • Denver, Colorado talk station KHOW-AM’s The Ross Kaminsky Show: “I’m not inclined to believe that this is a false flag, but the reaction of the left shows why you can’t rule it out. They’ll say and maybe do anything.”

    • Nashville, Tennessee talk station WWTN-FM’s Nashville’s Morning News: “Do I think that this is a false flag operation? I don’t know. … It seems that some of this stuff is a little too cute, if you get my drift.”

    • Wilmington, North Carolina talk station WAAV-AM’s The Tyler Cralle Show: “I don’t know” if it’s a false flag, but there’s “just as much evidence that it’s a Democrat trying to frame Republicans as there is there’s a Trump supporter trying to hurt critics of Donald Trump.”

    • Idaho Falls, Idaho talk station KID-AM’s Neal Larson: “My immediate reaction” to the news “was this feels like a false flag, possibly.”

    • Mount Pleasant, South Carolina talk station WSCC-FM’s Mornings with Kelly Golden: “People aren’t really buying” the news and it “smells like rotten eggs.”

    • Colorado Springs, Colorado talk station KVOR-AM’s The Richard Randall Show: “I think the more likely avenue is that this is a false flag. This is self-inflicted. This is -- we do this to ourselves to make ourselves look like the victims. ”

    • Charlotte, North Carolina station WBT-AM’s The Vince Coakley Show: “My betting would still be that it is a false flag.”

    • Jefferson City, Missouri talk station KWOS-AM’s The Gary Nolan Show: “It is, as they are describing it, a false flag.”

    • New York City talk station WOR-AM’s Mark Simone Show: “If I had to guess, just instinctively, it just looks like a left-wing operation, a total false flag. … Everything about it is suspicious.”

    • Milwaukee, Wisconsin talk station WISN-AM’s The Jay Weber Show: “Given the history of these things and the extreme amount of venom poisoning the left, I do believe a false flag scenario is more likely.”

    • West Palm Beach, Florida talk station WFTL-AM’s The South Florida Morning Show: “This is all too obvious” and “it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it turned out to be” a false flag.

    • Knoxville, Tennessee talk station WETR-AM’s Steve Gill: The misspelled names on the packages could mean it is a “false flag” and “maybe the whole thing is intended as a distraction.”

    • Rehoboth Beach, Delaware talk station WGMD-FM’s Radio Free Delmarva: “Most people seem to think that what’s happening today is a false flag attack” that “the left” can use against Republicans.

    • Greenville, South Carolina talk station WGTK-FM’s Upstate Live: It’s “not too far fetched” that the bombs were a “false flag” from “someone on the left hoping the Republicans would get blamed for it.”

    • Montgomery, Alabama talk station WACV-FM’s Happy Hour with Greg Budell: It’s “my suspicion” that it is a “false flag.”

    • Santa Cruz, California talk station KSCO-AM’s The Charles Freedman Show: “I think this is a false flag operation. That’s what I think. I do not really believe that it was some crazed right-winger.”

  • Facebook page running anti-Semitic ads for Florida gubernatorial race has links to major GOP ad agency

    Harris Media, the agency behind the digital strategies of several high-profile GOP candidates, has also worked to help elect European far-right extremists

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Florida Strong, a recently created Facebook page for a PAC that has paid for racist and anti-Semitic advertisements attacking Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, is using the same name as a pro-Democrat Florida PAC, seemingly in an effort to confuse audiences. The page is connected to Harris Media, a Republican ad firm that has worked with multiple far-right European political parties and was accused of creating attack sites on behalf of Kenya’s incumbent president last year.

    The page has repeatedly linked to a site called learnaboutgillum.com, which was registered only two days before the Facebook page was launched. The site attacks the candidate on multiple issues, calling him a socialist who “is currently under a cloud of FBI investigation.”​ According to the analytic tool Trendolizer, the site shares an IP address with Harris Media, a Republican ad agency based in Texas. As reported by BuzzFeed, Harris was instrumental in developing digital strategies for several high-profile Republican campaigns, including Ted Cruz’s 2012 Senate campaign and Mitch McConnell’s 2014 Senate campaign, before moving on to promote far-right extremism in Europe.

    In 2017, Harris worked for the far-right Alternative for Germany party, helping create anti-Muslim refugee ads for the party.

    Harris was also behind Islamophobic ads for far-right former French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen the same year. A former Harris employee criticized the firm for those projects, telling BuzzFeed: “I doubt … many people started working there to work for neo-Nazis.” The firm worked with the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party in 2014, and was accused of creating sites smearing Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s opponent in 2017 during that presidential election campaign. In 2016, the firm was briefly hired by then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, and it helped an advocacy group create online ads in swing states warning about “Sharia law.”

    In Florida, Harris previously worked on Adam Putnam’s primary campaign against Gillum’s Republican challenger, Rep. Ron DeSantis. Now, it’s seemingly continuing to deploy its extremism against Gillum through a PAC’s sketchy Facebook page and website.

    The Florida Strong page was created on October 10. Since then, several pages representing the Republican Party in different Florida counties have shared content from Florida Strong and sites connected to it, with Florida Strong also running multiple attack ads against Gillum. Those ads include the misleading claim that the murder rate increased 52 percent while Andrew Gillum has been mayor of Tallahassee. Another attack ad featured a racist cartoon of Gillum as a puppet being controlled by Democratic donors George Soros and Tom Steyer, playing on anti-Semitic tropes.

    The Florida Strong page shares a name with another Florida PAC supporting Democrats. That group’s leader told the Miami New Times that the right-wing page was trying to confuse voters by using the same name as the pro-Democrat PAC. The original organization reported the new group to Facebook, but was told that the page did not violate any policy. The page is listed on Facebook as a political organization that works to provide “paid electioneering communication paid for by Florida Strong, 115 East Park Avenue Unit 1 Tallahassee FL 32301” -- an address that has been previously used by Florida PACs registered by former Alachua County Republican Party Chairman Stafford Jones. The right-wing Florida Strong group has received donations from multiple Florida donors and groups, including a major real-estate developer and one of the state’s regulated electricity monopolies.

    The absence of detailed information about groups like Florida Strong highlights the continued lack of transparency in Facebook’s policies for political ads across the country. For instance, in Virginia, Democratic congressional candidate Jennifer Wexton has been targeted by anonymous Facebook ads, with the funding disclaimer saying only that the ads were “paid for by a freedom loving American Citizen exercising my natural law right, protected by the 1st Amendment and protected by the 2nd Amendment.”

    DeSantis, who Florida Strong is supporting through ads, also has ties to the far-right. DeSantis used to be an administrator for a Facebook group pushing racist conspiracy theories. And a former employee of the anti-Muslim group ACT for America has campaigned for DeSantis in the group. DeSantis himself has also spoken at conferences organized and attended by far-right anti-Muslim media figures such as David Horowitz and white nationalist-sympathizer Milo Yiannopoulos.

  • Facebook has a long history of failing its users. The massive data breach is just the latest example.

    As Facebook continues to deal with the fallout from the largest data breach in its history, Media Matters takes a look back at some of its previous failures

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN & ALEX KAPLAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Facebook recently announced the worst data breach in the company’s history, affecting approximately 30 million users. This breach allowed hackers to “directly take over user accounts” and see everything in their profiles. The breach “impacted Facebook's implementation of Single Sign-On, the practice that lets you use one account to log into others.” Essentially, any site users signed into using their Facebook login -- like Yelp, Airbnb, or Tinder -- was also vulnerable. Hackers who have access to the sign-on tokens could theoretically log into any of these sites as any user whose data was exposed in the hack. As a precaution, Facebook logged 90 million users out of their accounts. On October 12, the company offered users a breakdown of how many people were affected and what data was exposed.

    Via Facebook:

    The attackers used a portion of these 400,000 people’s lists of friends to steal access tokens for about 30 million people. For 15 million people, attackers accessed two sets of information – name and contact details (phone number, email, or both, depending on what people had on their profiles). For 14 million people, the attackers accessed the same two sets of information, as well as other details people had on their profiles. This included username, gender, locale/language, relationship status, religion, hometown, self-reported current city, birthdate, device types used to access Facebook, education, work, the last 10 places they checked into or were tagged in, website, people or Pages they follow, and the 15 most recent searches. For 1 million people, the attackers did not access any information.

    Users can find out if they were affected and what data was accessed at Facebook’s help center.

    Even with the update, we still don’t know enough information about the breach. We don’t know who was behind the attack. The FBI is investigating the hack, as well as the European Union (via Ireland’s Data Protection Commission, Facebook’s lead privacy regulator in Europe). Multiple members of Congress have expressed concern about the breach.

    What we do know is that this latest data breach is hardly the only way Facebook has failed its consumers. Media Matters has cataloged Facebook’s multitude failures to protect its consumers since the company’s beginnings.

    Data privacy

    Cambridge Analytica

    The public learned about Facebook’s most notorious data privacy breach on March 16 of this year. Facebook abruptly announced that it had banned Cambridge Analytica, the firm that did data targeting for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, from using the platform for, according to The Verge, “violating its policies around data collection and retention.” The next day, The New York Times and The Observer broke the story Facebook was clearly trying to get ahead of: Cambridge Analytica had illegally obtained and exploited the Facebook data of 50 million users in multiple countries.

    Christopher Wylie, Cambridge Analytica’s former research director, blew the whistle on how the firm used the ill-gotten data of Facebook’s users to target American voters in 2016. The company, founded by right-wing megadonor Robert Mercer, had political clients in the U.S. and around the world; it did work for President Donald Trump’s campaign, Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, current national security adviser John Bolton’s super PAC, and more. Following Wylie’s exposé, more information was revealed about the firm: Its leadership was caught on camera “talking about using bribes, ex-spies, fake IDs and sex workers.” It gave a sales presentation about disrupting elections to a Russian oligarch in 2014. And the firm reached out to WikiLeaks in 2016 offering to help release then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s emails. Following these revelations, Cambridge Analytica shut down (though there are serious questions about whether it spun off into a new company).

    The data breach didn’t just expose Facebook user data to a political consulting firm; it exposed it to a company backed by a right-wing billionaire whose full operations aren’t yet known. Put another way, a shady operation was offering services like entrapment to potential clients, and the only tool required to do that was Facebook.

    Facebook continues to find more unauthorized scraping of user data. The company disabled a network of accounts belonging to Russian database provider SocialDataHub for unauthorized collection of user information. The company previously provided analytical services to the Russian government, and its CEO even praised Cambridge Analytica.

    Advertising profits over user privacy

    Facebook’s business model monetizes the personal information of its users for advertising purposes. Advertisers on Facebook pay for access to information about users in order to create better-targeted ad campaigns. But over the course of Facebook’s history, the company has continually exposed user data without their consent, putting profits over privacy considerations.

    In 2009, Facebook was forced to settle a class action lawsuit from users and shut down its Beacon ad network, which posted users’ online purchases from participating websites on their news feeds without their permission. In 2010, Facebook was caught selling data to advertising companies that could be used to identify individual users. The company has been fined in Europe multiple times for tracking non-users for the purpose of selling ads. It admitted in March that it collected call history and text messages from users on Android phones for years.

    Exposing data of Facebook employees

    Facebook’s privacy failures affect its employees as well. The Guardian reported last year that a security lapse exposed the personal details of 1,000 content moderators across 22 departments to users suspected of being terrorists. Forty of those moderators worked on Facebook’s counterterrorism unit in Ireland, at least one of whom was forced to go into hiding for his own safety because of potential threats from terrorist groups he banned on the platform.

    Misinformation

    Trending Topics

    In response to a Gizmodo article claiming Facebook employees were suppressing conservative outlets in its Trending Topics section, the company fired its human editors in 2016 and starting relying on an algorithm to decide what was trending. Following this decision, multiple fake stories and conspiracy theories appeared in the trending section. The problems with Trending Topics continued through this year, with the section repeatedly featuring links to conspiracy theory websites and posts from figures known for pushing conspiracy theories. Facebook mercifully removed Trending Topics altogether in June 2018.

    State-sponsored influence operations and propaganda

    During the 2016 campaign, Russian operatives from the organization known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA) -- which is owned by a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin -- ran multiple pages that tried to exploit American polarization. In particular, the IRA ran ads meant to stoke tensions about the way American police treat Black people while using other pages to support the police; the organization also played both sides on immigration.

    The IRA also stole identities of Americans and created fake profiles to populate its pages focusing on “social issues like race and religion.” It then used the pages to organize political rallies about those issues. During the campaign, some Facebook officials were aware of the Russian activity, yet did not take any action. In 2017, Facebook officials told the head of the company’s security team to tamp down details in a public report it had prepared about the extent of Russian activity on the platform. It was only after media reporting suggested Facebook had missed something that the company found out the extent of that activity. So far this year, Facebook has taken down accounts potentially associated with the IRA.

    Facebook in August 2018 also removed a number of accounts that the company had linked to state media in Iran.

    Foreign networks spreading fake news and getting ad revenue

    Since at least 2015, Facebook has been plagued by fake news stories originating from Macedonia that are pushed on the platform to get clicks for ad revenue. Despite being aware of those activities during the 2016 campaign, Facebook took no action to stop it, even as locals in Macedonia “launched at least 140 US politics websites.” Since then, Facebook has claimed that it has taken steps to prevent this kind of activity. But it has continued as Macedonian accounts used the platform to spread fake stories about voter fraud in special elections in Alabama in 2017 and Pennsylvania in 2018.

    Macedonians aren’t the only foreign spammers on Facebook: A large network of users posing as Native Americans has operated on the platform since at least 2016. The network exploited the Standing Rock protests to sell merchandise, and it has posted fake stories to get ad revenue. While much of this activity has come out of Kosovo, users from Serbia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Macedonia, and the Philippines are also involved.

    Facebook has also regularly struggled to notice and respond to large foreign spammer networks that spread viral hoaxes on the platform:

    • The platform allowed a Kosovo-based network of pages and groups that had more than 100,000 followers combined to repeatedly push fake news. Facebook finally removed the network following multiple Media Matters reports.

    • The platform allowed a network of pages and groups centered in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that had more than 60,000 followers to publish fake stories. It was taken down following a Media Matters report.

    Facebook officials have also downplayed the key role Facebook groups play in spreading fake news, even though the platform has been used regularly by people in other countries to push fake stories.

    Domestic disinformation campaigns

    Until just recently, Facebook did not respond to network of pages that regularly posted false stories and hoaxes and worked together to amplify their disinformation. The pages in the networks would coordinate and amplify their disinformation content. Facebook finally took down some of these domestic disinformation networks on October 11, right before the 2018 midterms, noting they violated its spam and inauthentic behavior policies. But as Media Matters has documented, even this sweep missed some obvious targets.

    Fake news thriving on Facebook

    Facebook’s fake news problem can be illustrated well by one of the most successful fake news sites on the platform, YourNewsWire. Based in California, YourNewsWire has been one of the most popular fake news sites in the United States and has more than 800,000 followers through its Facebook pages. Time and time again, hoaxes the site has published have gone viral via Facebook. Some of these fake stories have been flat out dangerous and have been shared on Facebook hundreds of thousands of times. Facebook’s designated third-party fact-checkers debunked the stories the site had published more than 80 times before it appears Facebook finally took action and penalized it in its news feed, forcing the site to respond to the fact-checkers’ repeated debunks.

    Fake news has also been a problem in Facebook searches: Since at least 2017, fake stories about celebrities have popped up in Facebook searches, even after some had been debunked by Facebook’s designated third-party fact-checkers. Facebook in response has said it is trying to improve Facebook search results.

    The problem has also extended to its ads. In May 2018, Facebook launched a public database of paid ads deemed “political” that ran on the platform. A review of the database found that the platform, in violation of its own policies, allowed ads featuring fake stories and conspiracy theories.

    Withholding 2016 data from researchers

    After the 2016 election, researchers repeatedly urged Facebook to give them access to its data to examine how misinformation spreads on the platform. In April, the platform announced it would launch an independent research commission that would have access to the data. However, the platform has refused to allow researchers to examine data from before 2017, meaning data from during the 2016 election is still inaccessible.

    Misuse of Instant Articles

    BuzzFeed reported earlier this year that fake news creators were pushing their content via Facebook’s Instant Articles, a feature that allows stories to load on the Facebook mobile app itself and which Facebook partly earns revenue from. In response, Facebook claimed it had “launched a comprehensive effort across all products to take on these scammers.” Yet the platform has continued to allow bad actors to use the feature for fake stories and conspiracy theories.

    Problems with fact-checking

    In response to the proliferation of fake news on the platform after the 2016 campaign, Facebook partnered with third-party fact-checkers to review posts flagged by users as possible fake news. Since then, some of these fact-checkers have criticized Facebook for not being transparent, particularly in its flagging process, withholding data on the effectiveness of the debunks, and failing to properly communicate with them.

    In 2017, Facebook included the conservative Weekly Standard in its fact-checking program in the United States. The platform otherwise included only nonpartisan fact-checkers in its program, and since then it has not included any corresponding progressive outlet. This has resulted in the conservative outlet fact-checking and penalizing in the news feed a progressive outlet over a disputed headline, which was harshly criticized.

    Human and civil rights violations

    Poor policies for monitoring white supremacy and hate

    This year, leaked documents showed that while Facebook’s content policies forbid hate speech arising from white supremacy, so-called white nationalist and white separatist views were considered acceptable, a policy it is now reviewing after public scrutiny. A 2017 Pro Publica investigation of Facebook’s content policies showed that white men were protected from hate speech but Black children were not. Neo-Nazis and white supremacists continue to profit by selling white supremacist clothing and products on Facebook and Instagram. Zuckerberg also defended the rights of Holocaust deniers to share their conspiracy theories on the platform.

    After years of pressure from civil rights groups, Facebook finally agreed to submit to a civil rights audit, but it also announced the creation of a panel to review supposed bias against conservatives the same day, equating the civil rights of its users with partisan bickering by Republicans.

    Contributing to violence in multiple countries

    Facebook in recent years has actively expanded to developing countries. Since then, the platform has been used in Myanmar and Sri Lanka to encourage hate and violence against minorities, resulting in riots and killings. In Libya, militias have used the platform to sell weapons, find their opponents, and coordinate attacks. The United Nations has issued multiple reports criticizing Facebook’s role in Myanmar, suggesting the platform “contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes” in the country. Activists and officials in those countries also complained that Facebook had not employed moderators to monitor for hateful content, nor had they established clear points of contact for people in those countries to contact them to issue concerns.

    Content sent via messaging app WhatsApp, which Facebook owns, has also caused problems. In India, hoaxes spreading through the platform have led to multiple lynchings, and the Indian government (whose supporters have themselves spread hoaxes) has pressured the company to clamp down on misinformation. In response, the platform has resorted to going on the road to perform skits to warn people about WhatsApp hoaxes. Other countries like Brazil and Mexico have also struggled with hoaxes spreading through WhatsApp, with the latter also seeing lynchings as a result.

    Used by authoritarians to target opponents

    Certain governments have also used Facebook as a means to target and punish their perceived opponents. In the Philippines, supporters of President Rodrigo Duterte, some of whom have been part of Duterte’s government, have spread fake content on the platform to harass and threaten his opponents. And in Cambodia, government officials have tried to exploit Facebook’s policies to target critics of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

    Ads discrimination

    Facebook’s ad policies have allowed people to exclude groups based on their race while creating a target audience for their ads, as ProPublica noted in 2016. The following year, it found that despite Facebook’s claims to stop such discrimination, housing ads on the platform continued to exclude target audience by race, sex, disability, and other factors. In 2017, civil rights groups filed a lawsuit against the platform and the Department of Housing and Urban Development also filed a complaint. Another investigation the same year found that the platform could exclude viewers by age from seeing job ads, a potential violation of federal law. In 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Facebook for allegedly allowing employers to exclude women from recruiting campaigns.

    Helping anti-refugee campaign in swing states

    In 2016, Facebook, along with Google, directly collaborated with an agency that was working with far-right group Secure America Now to help target anti-Muslim ads on Facebook to users in swing states that warned about Sharia law and attacked refugees.

    Online harassment

    Facebook has done little to protect people who become targets of online harassment campaigns, even though most of them are likely users of Facebook themselves. Time and again, Facebook has allowed itself to be weaponized for this purpose. Alex Jones and Infowars are perhaps the most famous examples of this problem. Even though Jones harassed Sandy Hook families for years, calling the school shooting a false flag, spreading hate speech, and engaging in other forms of bullying, Facebook continued to allow him free rein on its platform. The company finally banned Jones in July this year, after weeks of public pressure, including an open letter from two Sandy Hook parents, but only after Apple “stopped distributing five podcasts associated with Jones.”

    Facebook has also allowed conspiracy theorists and far-right activists to harass the student survivors of the Parkland school shooting, most of whom were minors, on the platform. More recently, it allowed right-wing meme pages to run a meme disinformation campaign targeting professor Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, and other survivors who came forward during the confirmation process of now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

    Still more screw-ups

    Then there are the failures that defy category. In 2012, Facebook conducted psychological tests on nearly 700,000 users without their consent or knowledge. Zuckerberg had to apologize after giving a virtual reality tour of hurricane-struck Puerto Rico. Illegal opioid sales run rampant on Facebook, among other platforms, and the company has been unable to curb or stop them.

    Even advertisers, the source of Facebook’s profit, haven’t been spared. Facebook’s latest political ad restrictions have created problems for local news outlets, LGBTQ groups, and undocumented immigrants seeking to buy ads. Facebook also had to admit to advertisers that it gave them inflated video-viewing metrics for the platform for over two years.

    What Facebook owes consumers

    As a college student, Zuckerberg offered the personal data of Facebook’s initial users at Harvard to his friend and joked that people were “dumb fucks” for trusting him with their personal information. One hopes that Zuckerberg’s respect for his customer base has improved since then, but Facebook’s many failures since suggest that it hasn’t.

    BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel suggested that Facebook’s users simply don’t care enough about data privacy to stop using the platform. We have a slightly different theory: Users don’t leave Facebook because there’s no available alternative. Without a competitor, Facebook has no real incentive to fix what it’s broken.

    The impact of Facebook’s failures compound on society at large. As the founder of one of Facebook’s designated third-party fact-checkers told The New York Times, “Facebook broke democracy. Now they have to fix it.”

  • A week-old Facebook page with foreign connections pushed a fake Kavanaugh story that went viral

    The video in question is really of a 2016 event in France

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    UPDATE (10/1/18): The page World against terrorism was removed from Facebook after the bikers hoax received more than 4 million views and 160,000 shares. It is unclear whether the page owners or Facebook removed it.

    A Facebook page that is little more than a week old and has connections to a Macedonian fake news network shared a video falsely claiming a group of bikers were coming to Washington, D.C., to rally for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The mislabeled video has received hundreds of thousands of views and tens of thousands of shares.

    On September 24, the Facebook page World against terrorism posted a video of bikers on a highway with the caption: “OUTSTANDING!! Bikers for Trump on thier (sic) way to Washington DC to Support the Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearing and Demand Sen. [Dianne] Feinsten (sic) to resign! This is Amazing! Thank you Bikers for Trump!” The mislabeled video currently has around 50,000 shares and about 830,000 views. The Republican Party of Charlotte County, FL, also shared the video, writing, “Bikers for Trump on the way to Washington D.C. to support Kavanaugh and ask for resignation of Sen Feinstein!”

    The claim from the post is false -- the video actually appears to be from a 2016 demonstration in France, according to photos from Getty Images.

    This is not the first time a fake story about bikers coming to Washington, D.C., circulated on social media. Earlier this year, a fake story spread about bikers heading to the capital to demand an end to special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. And in early 2017, mislabeled videos and photos made rounds that exaggerated the number of bikers coming to Washington, D.C., for President Donald Trump’s inauguration -- a claim Trump later pushed.

    The page, World against terrorism, currently has slightly more than 10,000 followers. Since it was created on September 16, it has posted multiple anti-Muslim memes and videos. Beginning September 23, the page also started linking to articles from two sites -- weirdworldinfo.com and cukaminfo.com -- some of which are misleading or are fake news. Both sites are registered in Macedonia, and both were created just days before the Facebook page. According to the analytic tool Trendolizer, both sites also have the same Google AdSense ID as a previously discovered network of Macedonian fake news sites whose content was also being shared by fake Twitter accounts.

    Earlier in September, Facebook introduced a feature in the U.S. that allows users to see the countries of people running pages with a “large audience size.” This means that pages with a smaller audience that seem to mask their real purpose of driving clicks to fake news sites that carry ads will continue to fly under the radar.

    Facebook watchdog Sarah Thompson’s research was instrumental to this post.

  • A pro-Trump troll started a viral hoax about Christine Blasey Ford and Neil Gorsuch, and Rush Limbaugh ran with it

    Josh Cornett's Twitter feed is full of fake stories

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN

    A pro-President Donald Trump troll with a large Twitter following who has repeatedly tweeted fake “breaking” news stories smearing public figures has now tried to smear professor Christine Blasey Ford, who said Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were in high school. Some of the account’s false stories, including the tweet about Ford, have gone viral and spread throughout right-wing media.

    On September 18, Josh Cornett tweeted: “BREAKING: According to sources Diane Feinstein's reluctance to mention the Kavanaugh accuser's letter during confirmation session is because the accuser sent a similiar (sic) letter directed at Judge Gorsuch last year. The whereabouts of the earlier letter remain a mystery.developing.”

    The smear received thousands of retweets and likes, was pushed by Jim Hoft of far-right conspiracy blog The Gateway Pundit; Fox News contributor Kevin Jackson; former Infowars reporter Joe Biggs; columnist Matt Barber, a former attorney for the extreme anti-LGBTQ group Liberty Counsel; and former professional boxer-turned-lawyer Joey Gilbert. It was also shared on multiple subreddits. Radio host Rush Limbaugh also shared it on the air, saying it came from a “Twitter thread” and that he had "no idea of the veracity.”

    The smear was also shared by hosts on Texas talk radio station WBAP-AM, Pennsylvania’s WILK-AM, and Florida’s WFTL-AM. Cornett later tweeted that the claim was “forwarded” to him and he had “no idea” if it was true.

    Cornett has described himself to the conservative American Thinker as “an average hard working American” in his 30s, and his Twitter profile says he is “proudly blocked” by Fox News hosts Dana Perino, Bret Baier, Greg Gutfeld, and others. In 2017, The New York Times noted that Cornett, a “37-year-old Trump supporter in Cleveland,” urged his followers to boycott Nordstrom after the department store decided it would not sell the fashion line of the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump. The paper quoted Cornett as saying, “Anything that helps [Trump], I try to promote,” and that whenever Trump gets attacked, "I try to defend.”

    Cornett has followed through on that promise, using his Twitter account to support the president by smearing people he sees as Trump’s enemies and making up fake stories about them -- usually by tweeting without any evidence that he has “BREAKING” stories which are “developing.” Here are some of his fake stories that have gained traction:

    • In May, when ABC canceled pro-Trump comedian Roseanne Barr’s show after Barr made racist remarks, Cornett tweeted: “BREAKING: According to sources ABC President Channing Dungey had a long conversation via phone with former First Lady Michelle Obama before deciding to cancel the Roseanne show. Michelle Obama was reportedly enraged and insisted an apology was inadequate......developing.” Barr retweeted the post and asked Cornett, “Is this true?” Fox News mentioned the tweet in a story, calling Cornett a “right-wing activist.” YourNewsWire, one of the most popular fake news purveyors in the United States, pushed Cornett’s tweet in an article, and Cornett later tweeted the article to Barr as supposed proof of his claim. Cornett subsequently told American Thinker that he could not reveal his source, “but I stand by it and put my name on it.”

    • Earlier that month, Cornett tweeted without evidence: “BREAKING: Sources are confirming that former President Barack Obama has called Jay-Z several times over the past month pleading with Jay-Z to discourage fellow Hip Hop artists from meeting with President Trump.....developing.” The president’s son Donald Trump Jr. liked the tweet, and conspiracy theory outlet Infowars and The Drudge Report picked it up. Several radio hosts also shared it on air, including Boston radio host Jeff Kuhner, Tennessee host Dan Mandis, and a host on an Ohio talk station. The blog Gossip Cop fact-checked the story, reporting, “A source close to Jay-Z tells Gossip Cop on the condition of anonymity that Obama never asked him to tell other hip-hop artists not to support or meet with Trump.”

    • In June, Cornett also tweeted without evidence: “BREAKING: Senator Schumer has instructed fellow Democrats not to pass any legislation that could possibly help the children at the border, stating that ‘It will help voter turnout in the midterms’ and that CNN had agreed to help the Democrats with the storyline’... Developing.” The fake quote spread on social media, with some also adding MSNBC to the fake story, and multiple Facebook pages sharing a meme with Cornett’s false claim.

    • In July, after Fox News host Jeanine Pirro went on ABC’s The View, Cornett tweeted, “BREAKING: According to sources at ABC, after the taping of #TheView Thursday Whoopi Goldberg made the racist comment ‘I won't sit there and be lectured by Trump's Sand Nig*er’ the comment was made to Co-host Ana Navarro and overheard by several staff members......developing.” While ABC’s publicity director said the tweet “absolutely is false,” the hoax spread on social media. Some major followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory picked it up, a radio host pushed it on air, and a petition was launched calling for Goldberg’s firing.

    • In August, Cornett tweeted without evidence: “BREAKING: Prosecutors in the Southern District of New York have been briefing Governor Andrew Cuomo on a near daily basis about the investigation into the Trump Organization. Governor Cuomo has then been illegally feeding the info to his brother Chris Cuomo and CNN..developing.” That, too, was shared as a screenshot on social media.

    In addition to his numerous other baseless claims, Cornett has also tweeted fake claims to exploit the murder of Mollie Tibbetts (who was allegedly killed by an undocumented immigrant), smear football player Colin Kaepernick, and declare CNN was ordered by its president to ignore violence in Chicago (which was also picked up by YourNewsWire). So far, Twitter has taken no action as Cornett continues to tweet these fake stories.

  • Pro-Trump sycophants launch another smear of Christine Blasey Ford, trying to tie her to Fusion GPS

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ & ALEX KAPLAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Fringe conservatives are trying to undermine California professor Christine Blasey Ford’s account that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her by pointing to work her brother has done for a firm with connections to the Russia investigation. Right-wing websites and social media personalities are suggesting they’ve uncovered evidence of a potential conspiracy by noting that Ralph Blasey worked at a law firm that has done legal work for Fusion GPS, the private research firm that conservatives have attacked for its role in the probe. But Blasey’s work for that firm ended in 2004 -- six years before Fusion GPS was even founded -- according to the LinkedIn.com profile the critics are citing.

    The right-wing smear machine is engaged in a feverish effort to discredit Ford by any means necessary. That endeavor has included targeting the unflattering student reviews of a different Christine Ford in order to smear Kavanaugh’s accuser as “dark, mad, scary and troubled,” and misreading court documents to suggest that she holds a grudge against Kavanaugh because his mother presided over the foreclosure of her parents’ home in 1996.

    Another attack turns on the year-long conservative campaign against Fusion GPS, which in 2016 retained the former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who compiled a dossier of reports on then-candidate Donald Trump’s ties to Russia. Republicans have sought to discredit the dossier, which contains salacious claims that have not been debunked, in order to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.

    Now the fringe right is suggesting that Ford is not credible because her brother was once a litigation partner for Baker Hostetler, a law firm that retained Fusion GPS in 2016 to produce separate research. But according to the very LinkedIn.com profile they cite, Ralph Blasey worked for the firm between 1989 and 2004. Fusion GPS was not even founded until 2010.

    Even if Ralph Blasey had still been working there in 2016, that wouldn't mean he would be connected to Fusion GPS -- Baker Hostetler is a massive firm employing nearly a thousand lawyers, including a former chief counsel to the Republican National Committee and a former national political director for Trump’s presidential campaign. And of course, none of this has any bearing on Christine Blasey Ford's story.

    At times, those promoting the story have noted that Blasey left the firm long before it retained Fusion GPS, but they nonetheless suggested that the connection shows evidence of “enemy action in progress.”

    Here are some of the outlets and media personalities trying to discredit Ford by linking her to Fusion GPS.

    YourNewsWire, which has been one of the most heavily trafficked fake news sites in the United States:

    True Pundit, a major fake news site run by a disgruntled former journalist:

    Lionel Lebron, a YouTube conspiracy theorist best known for pushing “the QAnon conspiracy theory, which claims that top Democrats are part of a global pedophile cult.” He met with Trump in the Oval Office last month:

    Jacob Wohl, who writes for Gateway Pundit, a website that consistently pushes hoaxes and conspiracy theories, and has also contributed to YourNewsWire:

    Ann Vandersteel, president of the pro-Trump podcast company YourVoice America:

    And the extreme anti-abortion group Operation Rescue:

    The story was also shared on Tea Party, a private Facebook group with nearly 95,000 members that regularly circulates conspiracy theories and was moderated by several Republican political candidates until Media Matters exposed their role in the group last month.

    Radio stations in Texas, Illinois, and Ohio also pushed the story.

  • A Facebook group masquerading as an official Sean Hannity fan group is actually run by foreign spammers

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    UPDATE (9/19/18): The group has been deleted since the publication of this report.

    A private Facebook group masquerading as an official fan group for Fox News host Sean Hannity is actually run by Eastern Europeans using it to trick fans into clicking on fake news to bring in advertising revenue. The group is the only part remaining of a network of Kosovo groups and accounts previously identified by Media Matters that had also tricked Americans with fake stories for clicks.

    The closed group, called Sean Hannity Fans ( OFFICIAL ), has more than 33,000 members and describes itself as the “Official Group For Sean Hannity.” Many Americans in the group seem to take the group’s name at face value, posting laudatory messages about Hannity and clips from his show.

    But the group’s real purpose is not to promote Hannity. For one, none of the group’s administrators and moderators appear to be American -- one is from Eastern Europe, and others feature Eastern European activity on their accounts. One of the moderators also tagged himself with another moderator in Kosovo in 2017. All five of them also ran a now-deleted group called Sean Hannity FANS, part of a Facebook network based in Podujevo, Kosovo, that pushed fake news. It took Facebook nearly two months after Media Matters uncovered the network to take down most of the groups and pages in it, but the platform still left the Sean Hannity Fans ( OFFICIAL ) group untouched.

    All of the moderators’ accounts have also spammed the Sean Hannity Fans ( OFFICIAL ) group with numerous fake stories, including pieces targeting Muslims and a story about Hillary Clinton originating from fake news site True Pundit.

    Another account that appears to be from Eastern Europe has spammed the group with fake news, such as a debunked story about renaming Florida’s “Old Dixie Highway,” and another fake story about celebrities calling for a Hollywood strike until President Donald Trump resigns.

    The main site, dailygroup.pw, that this account has linked to recently carries Google AdSense (whose ads include the tag “AdChoices” at the top right), meaning the site earns money when group members click on these fake stories.

    Facebook groups continue to be a major problem for the platform. Users frequently employ them to push harassment and conspiracy theories -- and foreign spammers use them to spread hoaxes and smears -- all without much oversight. Facebook has said it is using machine learning to catch spammers sharing fake stories, but many still slip through. Facebook officials have also downplayed the key role groups play in spreading fake news.