Facebook never set out to be a hotbed of bogus conspiracy theories. But its information ecosystem and news feed algorithm proved ripe for bad actors, and purveyors of fake news have gamed the system to deceive and misinform the public -- with incredibly dangerous consequences.
On October 30, a white supremacist-linked Twitter account posted a tweet that would develop into a national fake news story, one claiming Hillary Clinton and her allies were involved in a widespread child sex-trafficking ring. After fake news stories spread the baseless claim through Facebook, conspiracy theorists on message boards Reddit and 4Chan named a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor as a central hub in the supposed operation. The story gained further traction on Facebook from there. Weeks later, an armed man entered the restaurant and endangered the lives of patrons and employees while he attempted to “self-investigate” the conspiracy claims that Facebook’s fake news ecosystem had artificially legitimized.
According to Media Matters’ definition of the fake news universe, fake news is information that is clearly and demonstrably fabricated and that has been packaged and distributed to appear as legitimate news. Incentivized by ad revenue or potential political gain, fake news purveyors (websites, social media pages and accounts, or individuals who share or aggregate fake news stories) have figured out how to exploit Facebook’s algorithmic curation of news -- which relies on user engagement in determining what stories to promote -- to launch outlandish fabrications into the mainstream. Fake news purveyors’ efforts to push fake news on Facebook were also made easier after the social media giant fired its human editors in August following conservative outcry over allegations of suppressing conservative news. Fake news purveyors have largely found success peddling fake news stories on Facebook by modeling the following formula, and it is with this formula that fake news purveyors used Facebook to catalyze Pizzagate’s journey from a random tweet to international infamy:
Fake news can sprout from multiple types of content, including clickbait, conspiracy theories, propaganda, and simply made-up lies on random internet platforms. A solitary lie might not have much of an impact, but a lie weaponized in the form of a packaged “news” article to achieve political gain can have serious consequences.
In the case of Pizzagate, a white supremacist-linked Twitter account tweeted a screenshot of a seemingly random Facebook comment that claimed an “NYPD source” said Hillary Clinton was involved in an “international child enslavement and sex ring.” The Twitter account, which BuzzFeed noted uses a profile image found on white supremacist message boards, posted the comment as fact, stating that the “rumors stirring in the NYPD” indicated a “pedophila ring” (sic) with Clinton at the center. As of December 15, the tweet had been retweeted 6,516 times and liked 5,303 times.
Although the tweet was retweeted thousands of times, its initial reach was limited by Twitter's platform, which is smaller than that of other social media sites. According to a Pew Research Center report, only 24 percent of adult internet users said they use Twitter -- which ranks it slightly lower than LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Instagram -- versus 79 percent who said they use Facebook.
Fake news stories born in the fever swamps of the internet, specifically, are breathed into life when fringe websites with no regard for the source or veracity of claims package the fabricated claims as legitimate news.
A user on the fringe web forum Godlike Productions (GLP) echoed the original neo-Nazi’s tweet, claiming that he or she had “inside sources” that confirmed at least six “members of Congress, several top leadership from federal agencies, and others” were involved in a “massive child trafficking and pedophile sex ring” fronted by the Clinton Foundation. The user claimed that members of Clinton’s inner circle of influencers “were active participants” and that the FBI and Department of Justice feared “a complete loss of public support for the federal government.”
Fake news purveyor and conspiracy website Your News Wire published a news-style article (listed in the news section of its site) that alleged that an “FBI insider” confirmed the Clinton Foundation was a front for a “political pedophile sex ring.” Marking the point at which a lie becomes weaponized into fake news, Your News Wire cited only the GLP message board, the original tweet, and an archived thread on 4Chan’s “/pol/” (“Politically Incorrect”) message board containing a self-described “person with intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the Clinton case” as supposed evidence that “a massive child trafficking and pedophile sex ring operates in Washington.”
Fringe websites that would not otherwise gather traffic on their own then push the fake news story to their affiliated Facebook pages. This serves both to maximize user engagement with the story (often aided by clickbait headlines) and to redirect users to their website (which is the main source of revenue for fake news purveyors, mostly because of advertising).
Your News Wire posted its article alleging Clinton confidants were orchestrating a pedophile sex ring to the site’s affiliated Facebook page, where it has received more than 28,000 engagements -- likes, comments or shares -- since the story was first posted on October 31 through publication of this post, according to social media analytics service BuzzSumo.
Facebook’s platform offers digital publishers access to more people than any other platform does.
After fake information is placed into the Facebook news ecosystem and served up on users’ timelines, users recycle and share content. Because of Facebook’s algorithmic curation of news stories, the more that users engage with a story, the more of their friends see it, and so on. Users can repost fake news stories to their own or their friends’ timelines, share to another group, or cross-post to other sites like Reddit and Twitter to increase traffic to the story.
Once a fake news story posted to Facebook starts to generate more user engagement, other fake news purveyors will often adapt the stories on their own websites. Then, after publishing the fake news to their own site, either by copying the story verbatim or by adding new, baseless details to spice up the “report,” these other fake news purveyors follow the same step as the original fake news creator: push to Facebook. As more and more fake news purveyors publish the same story on Facebook, a wider audience sees and engages with the fake story, making it go viral.
AnonNews, a news blog claiming to be associated with hacking group Anonymous, regurgitated Your News Wire’s story verbatim in an article and in a Facebook post that has since been deleted. BuzzFeed reported that the fake news purveyor Subject Politics “introduced new, baseless claims” to the original conspiracy theory and used “an unrelated image of officers carrying seized property to create the impression the NYPD ‘raided’ something belonging to the Clintons.” Subject Politics has since deleted the article and corresponding Facebook post (which is not archived online), which had generated 113,500 engagements before the article's deletion, according to BuzzSumo. Fake news purveyor True Pundit next introduced new criminal claims to accuse Clinton of money laundering, child exploitation, pay-to-play at the State Department, and perjury. The corresponding Facebook post for the True Pundit article has since been deleted, but it generated over 164,000 engagements from when the story was posted on November 2 until publication.
Other platforms including Reddit and 4Chan also facilitate the spread of fake news, partly by serving as a platform for fake news purveyors to post their bogus stories, but also because their users create more fabrications that fake news purveyors then package into updated fake news reports.
After widely shared fake news stories alleging a child sex-trafficking operation in Washington, D.C., spread on Facebook for days, a Reddit user posted an elaborate conspiracy manifesto on the subreddit “r/The_Donald” that named Washington pizza restaurant Comet Ping Pong as a central location for the imaginary pedophilia sex ring. Moderators on the site have since removed the post, though discussion about it remains.
After the user created more false claims about the pizzeria, more fake news purveyors adopted the lies into their own fake news, which in turn ended up back on Facebook. Western Sentinel uncritically published claims made on the Reddit forum as if they were fact, using the manifesto as an indication that “some form of pedophile ring that involves quite a few public figures” is operating from the Washington pizza parlor. According to BuzzSumo, in an article and Facebook post that has been since deleted and is not archived, The Vigilant Citizen published an article crediting 4Chan users for having “uncovered” the conspiracy theory.
As fake news stories gain traction among an array of Facebook pages that traffic in hyperpartisan misinformation, more and more users see and engage with them. Then, as a story is increasingly shared, mentioned, and liked by Facebook users, its “engagement” level skyrockets. Facebook, which relies largely on algorithmic curation to determine what stories appear in its “trending” box after having fired its human editors, prioritizes engagement and rewards highly engaged stories -- those with “a high volume of mentions and a sharp increase in mentions over a short period of time” -- by making them visible to even more users. Of course, as more users see a story (precisely because it is boosted by engagement), its engagement level continues to grow, feeding a cycle of increasing engagement.
Facebook employees cited by Quartz said “engagement is the overriding priority” for determining how the site’s algorithm curates news, more so than “avoid[ing] prioritizing misleading stories.” As more users share fake news stories, more of their friends see them; as an exponential number of users engage with a fake news story, it becomes viral; and as a fake news story becomes viral, there’s a high likelihood it could pierce into the Facebook “trending” section, where of course, it lends itself to maximum visibility. Facebook’s algorithmic prioritization of engagement ultimately ends up amplifying fake news stories.
As BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman reported of Pizzagate, “Thanks to just a few tweets, a couple of message board posts, and the help of some pro-Trump sites eager for traffic, this conspiracy theory generated hundreds of thousands of engagements on Facebook, reaching potentially tens or hundreds of thousands of people.”
As fake news stories go viral on Facebook, their chance for entering into the mainstream increases. Both because right-wing political influencers have a propensity for believing and peddling bogus stories and because the viral nature of fake news stories arguably offers them a veneer of credibility (see step six), these fabrications disguised as news -- including Pizzagate -- can and often do find their way into the mouths of public figures.
Michael Flynn Jr., son of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for national security adviser, and a former member of the Trump transition team, for example, tweeted about Pizzagate the same day that a gunman entered the D.C. pizzeria to “self-investigate” the claims:
When fake news-purveying sites are successful in stimulating Facebook user engagement for their content, and in turn receive traffic to their affiliated web pages, advertisements and data trackers placed on their websites can earn the site owners a lot of money. This revenue stream enables the sites to continue operation and incentivizes them to continue presenting unsubstantiated sensational claims as fact.
Many hyperpartisan sites peddling fake news stories rely on Google AdSense to generate wealth. Online publishers can earn money through Google’s AdSense program by hosting advertisements on their websites while Google serves as a middleman between publishers and advertisers. On November 14, Google announced that it would “ban websites that peddle fake news from using its online advertising service” in order to target fake news purveyors’ revenue sources. Despite this announcement, a Media Matters analysis found that one month later, Google AdSense-linked ads still appeared on many sites that blast fake news across social media platforms. The same methodology also reveals that Your News Wire, the first site to package the Pizzagate conspiracy theory into a fake news story, is still hosting AdSense ads today alongside its original “article” about the imaginary child trafficking ring.
Other sources of revenue for sites can come in the form of paid-to-publish articles advertising products, other ad services like Taboola, and pop-up advertisements.
Fake News Has Real Consequences
Fake news stories can have lasting -- and sometimes dangerous -- consequences.
According to a Pew Research Center report, 64 percent of Americans -- including a majority in both political parties -- said fake news has caused “a great deal” of confusion about the basic facts of current events. The report states that about a third of Americans said they often see “completely made-up” political news while online and more than half said they see news that is “not fully accurate.” Fake news has the potential to undercut the public’s belief that the information they receive, even from legitimate sources of news, can be trusted.
The power of fake news and the social media ecosystem that enables it are not inconsequential and cannot be easily dismissed. In the case of Pizzagate, what started as a random online conspiracy theory morphed into a widely shared international news story. According to a search of the term “Pizzagate” on BuzzSumo, ranging from October 30 -- the date of the initial neo-Nazi tweet that kickstarted the fake news story -- through December 19, social media users have shared web articles (including both real and fake news stories) related to the conspiracy theory more than 5.2 million times across different platforms since the lie's birth. (Buzzsumo allows users to “discover the most shared content across all social networks and run detailed analysis reports.”)
BuzzSumo data also showed that Facebook specifically drove an overwhelming amount of traffic to Pizzagate-related articles from October 30 through November 21, when the Pizzagate rumors were officially debunked for the first time by The New York Times.
But the debunking of the lie did not stop it. At Pizzagate's climax, police arrested a North Carolina man after he walked into Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor with an assault rifle and fired at least one shot. The Washington Post reported that the man told police he traveled to the restaurant to “self-investigate” the fake news reports alleging that the eatery was the center in a Clinton-run pedophilia sex-trafficking operation.
Pizzagate-like tactics -- publishing a baseless smear in a news-style article format and distributing it to an eager fan base -- have also been adopted to target not just establishments like Comet Ping Pong, but also individual people. Alt-right social media personality Mike Cernovich has now used the same method of attack that made Pizzagate dangerous to attack video editor and satirist Vic Berger, urging his followers to “monitor” Berger and his Twitter followers to “find out what is going on, who these people are, what their connections are” because “they might be harming children.” By spreading the false rumor that Berger and his Twitter followers may be involved in a child sex ring, Cernovich’s “pizzagate” tactics have resulted in a flood of online harassment and death threats aimed at Berger from “alt-right” Twitter users.
Fake news, beginning in the form of a baseless Facebook comment and eventually becoming weaponized by a cohesive machine of fake news creators and purveyors, has had and will continue to have real-life consequences unless Facebook tightens its rules for how it is allowed to thrive on its platform.
Graphics by Sarah Wasko