Angelo Carusone talks to Molly Jong-Fast about how Facebook's recommendation engine is serving people extreme content

Carusone talks about how Facebook separately empowers Ben Shapiro and anti-vaxxers

Angelo Carusone talks to Molly Jong-Fast about Facebook, Ben Shapiro, and anti-vaxxers

Audio file

Citation From the July 23, 2021, edition of The New Abnormal with Molly Jong-Fast

ANGELO CARUSONE (PRESIDENT, MEDIA MATTERS FOR AMERICA): I don't want to reduce it all down to money, but it really makes a big, big difference. Mediocre content that had $11 million of engagement money pumped into it for the first part of this year would be disproportionately outperforming even really good content on Facebook right now. That's the first thing. The second thing is the content itself is high-valence, it's highly emotional. Most of what he is promoting is mean things about liberals. That helps, because people react harshly to — people react harshly to it, they like it, they engage with it, it makes them feel good. And so those two things together, both the nature of the content that he posts, and then the ads are the biggest influencers — and then there's one more. So he's paying for it, then there's the content itself, and this is the third one, and this is the one that I find the most oddly inexcusable. He cheats.

MOLLY JONG-FAST (HOST): I am shocked — I am shocked that Ben Shapiro cheats.

CARUSONE: And here's — here's the cheat. If you’re a Facebook creator —

JONG-FAST: I mean, it's hard to say that he's a creator, but yes, continue, yes.

CARUSONE: Right, I know. If you have any kind of a platform and you have a Facebook page associated with it, if you make your websites, whatever, what Facebook says is that you can have multiple Facebook pages, sure. But what you're not allowed to do is coordinate the activity in such a way to artificially juice or inflate or interact with the engagement. Right, there's all kinds of rules about how quickly your — so if you have multiple Facebook pages, there's all kinds of rules as to how quickly you can cross-post something or engage with it — because it effectively is spam.


CARUSONE: Facebook has been very vigorous about using the anti-spam rule against groups that fight for social justice — especially those that are fighting against police brutality, in the past they've been forced a lot of the anti-spam rules against them. Ben Shapiro has a network of Facebook pages that very dutifully break the rules every time they post a bunch of content, so that it artificially tricks Facebook's algorithm into thinking it has more initial engagement than it should.

JONG-FAST: It really does.

CARUSONE: And we’ve flagged this for Facebook. And have the receipts, we've demonstrated how they break the rules, we've pointed it out repeatedly. They have not enforced the rules, oddly, against him.



JONG-FAST: Facebook is a bad actor? It — why knock me over with a feather.

CARUSONE: That’s it, that is the Ben Shapiro-fication of Facebook. It’s money and cheating.

JONG-FAST: He cheats, and it’s money and cheating. I am completely shocked that this guy is involved with money and cheating. Let's pull back for a minute as we talk about Facebook, because the Biden administration has — and I believe rightfully so — I think they walked it back a little bit, but you saw last week Joe Biden gave a helicopter talk where he said Facebook is “killing people.” He was met with all sorts of, “how dare you use that kind of” — but there is a real correlation between Facebook and anti-vaxxing.


JONG-FAST: I have read studies, which say that when Facebook goes to a place, the anti-vax, you know, there's a drop-off in vaccinations. Can you talk about that?

CARUSONE: So, there is an enormously strong relationship between the anti-vax community and Facebook. In fact, you know, I think a lot of times people think about — they think about it for, like, almost too narrow. Say, “Oh, there's one bad piece of anti-vax content, and it's on Facebook.” And there's all kinds of fights about free speech and moderation and whatever. But that actually isn't how Facebook influences the conversation.

JONG-FAST: Interesting.

CARUSONE: The way that Facebook really influences the conversation about vaccines and other things, is actually through their recommendation engine — specifically on joining groups. And so one of the things we saw last year is that anti-vax groups on Facebook had the second-highest growth rates on the platform — 7 to 11%. QAnon had the most at 24%.

JONG-FAST: Yes — oh, good — I’m glad to see that working.

CARUSONE: But the reason that — the reason you blame Facebook for that is this. Their own internal studies show that 60 to 70% of all sign-ups to pages and groups come from Facebook recommending it to people.

JONG-FAST: The algorithm.

CARUSONE: So what matters is, if you're on Facebook — that’s right — if you're on Facebook, and you're somebody that Facebook has identified as being —

JONG-FAST: Potential mark.

CARUSONE: Exactly. They will promote those pages to you. And that to me — so what they’re actually doing isn’t just giving you or allowing one piece of content to be on their platform — it's worse than that. It's actually that they're organized, and they're helping connect people to things that they otherwise would not be connected to, or would have a much higher barrier to entry in order to find it. And so, that is why, to your point, when Facebook comes into places, you see a change in vaccine rates. In part, it's just one of the side effects of Facebook actually helping connect what is otherwise disconnected things that usually are on the fringes. And that's the — that is honestly their real big threat, is that they bring all these things together, which then creates a much bigger mess. Now, obviously, they've had problems with moderation and everything else, and they haven’t consistently enforced their rules. But their real, biggest threat is actually in helping these people find each other in the first place.