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  • Racist Russian propaganda is still going viral on conservative Facebook pages

    Blog ››› ››› NATALIE MARTINEZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Conservative and pro-Trump Facebook pages, most affiliated with fake news websites, are recycling memes created by Russian troll companies like the Internet Research Agency (IRA), which the social network has banned from its platform. Media Matters found 24 posts dating back to December 2017 from 11 right-wing pages that contained memes bearing watermarks from Russian troll-run social media accounts. Ten of these posts have earned over 20,000 interactions, with the two most popular crossing 70,000. These 28 posts appear to be Russian propaganda because they contained watermarks of logos from Russian troll-run accounts like South United, most of which pushed racist and anti-immigrant propaganda.


    Propaganda from the Russian troll account Secured Borders, which has used violent language to push anti-immigration misinformation related to illegal voting, crime, and welfare, has showed up on conservative pages multiple times. Memes from two other anti-immigration Russian troll accounts, Stop All Invaders and Heart of Texas, have also been recently reposted by conservative pages. A pro-gun meme from Heart of Texas was posted by the blue badge-verified page Chicks on the Right and by the page Cold Dead Hands which, according to its “About” section, pertains to a pro-gun Texas-based nonprofit group. Propaganda from the pro-Confederate Russian account South United has also been reposted by conservative Facebook pages with memes featuring the Confederate flag. Other Russian troll accounts pushed on Facebook include the pro-gun account Defend the 2nd, a law enforcement account called Back the Badge, and a conservative account Being Patriotic.


     

    Most pages posting such Russian propaganda are connected to or run by fake news and hyperpartisan sites. They include:

  • Lack of diversity is at the core of social media's harassment problem

    Right-wing figures and far-right trolls mocked questions to Facebook's Zuckerberg about diversity. But it's crucial to understanding how platforms enable harassment.

    Blog ››› ››› CRISTINA LóPEZ G.


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    This week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was questioned on racial diversity within his company as he appeared before House and Senate committees to address Facebook’s handling of user data. Facebook -- and more generally, the tech industry -- has often been criticized for its lack of diversity, an issue that, as members of Congress pointed out, can hinder the platform’s ability to respond to discrimination against African-American users and fake news.

    Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) discussed the relationship between Facebook’s fake news problem and lack of diversity within the company itself:

    Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) asked Zuckerberg about racial discrimination enabled by Facebook and indicated a "growing distrust ... about Facebook's sense of urgency” in addressing such discrimination:

    Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) questioned Zuckerberg on Facebook’s lack of diversity:

    REP. G.K. BUTTERFIELD (D-NC): You and your team certainly know how I feel about racial diversity in corporate America, and [Facebook Chief Operating Officer] Sheryl Sandberg and I talk about that all of the time. Let me ask you this, and the Congressional Black Caucus has been very focused on holding your industry accountable -- not just Facebook, your industry -- accountable for increasing African-American inclusion at all levels of the industry. And I know you have a number of diversity initiatives. In 2017, you’ve increased your black representation from 2 to 3 percent. While this is a small increase, it's better than none. And this does not nearly meet the definition of building a racially diverse community. CEO leadership -- and I have found this to be absolutely true -- CEO leadership on issues of diversity is the only way that the technology industry will change. So, will you commit, sir, to convene, personally convene a meeting of CEOs in your sectors -- many of them, all of them perhaps, are your friends -- and to do this very quickly to develop a strategy to increase racial diversity in the technology industry?

    MARK ZUCKERBERG: Congressman, I think that that's a good idea and we should follow up on it. From the conversations that I have with my fellow leaders in the tech industry, I know that this is something that we all understand, that the whole industry is behind on, and Facebook is certainly a big part of that issue. We care about this not just from the justice angle, but because we know that having diverse viewpoints is what will help us serve our community better, which is ultimately what we're here to do. And I think we know that the industry is behind on this.

    Right-wing media figures and far-right trolls scoffed at the idea of questioning the tech industry’s lack of diversity

    Right-wing figures and far-right trolls scoffed at these questions on different social media platforms -- including Gab, an alternative to Twitter that has been called a "haven for white nationalists" and has on occasion served as a platform to coordinate online harassment -- dismissing them as “insane” and describing efforts to increase racial diversity as discrimination “against white people.” 

    But experts have criticized Facebook and other platforms for the lack of racial diversity within their ranks and explained that diversity is at the core of social media’s harassment problems

    Members of Congress were not alone in their concern that Facebook’s racial homogeneity might diminish its capacity to create a safe environment for every user and protect user data. Bärí A. Williams, formerly a senior commercial attorney at Facebook, explained that racial diversity specifically would improve the platform’s ability to respond to data breaches, “fill blind spots,” and improve “cultural competency” through “lived experience.”

    While Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s intention to rely on Artificial Intelligence (AI) to adress many of the social network’s shortcomings, Molly Wood, host of the Marketplace Tech radio show, pointed out that AI is not a substitute for a racially inclusive workforce:

    A lack of racial diversity in companies’ ranks is at the core of the harassment problem on their social media platforms, as online harassment disproportionately targets minorities of color. According to Pew, “harassment is often focused on personal or physical characteristics; political views, gender, physical appearance and race are among the most common,” with African-Americans experiencing more harassment because of their ethnicity than other groups, and women experiencing more harassment than men:

    Some 14% of U.S. adults say they have ever been harassed online specifically because of their political views, while roughly one-in-ten have been targeted due to their physical appearance (9%), race (8%) or gender (8%). Somewhat smaller shares have been targeted for other reasons, such as their religion (5%) or sexual orientation (3%).

    Certain groups are more likely than others to experience this sort of trait-based harassment. For instance, one-in-four blacks say they have been targeted with harassment online because of their race or ethnicity, as have one-in-ten Hispanics. The share among whites is lower (3%). Similarly, women are about twice as likely as men to say they have been targeted as a result of their gender (11% vs. 5%)

    During a conversation with Wired about how Silicon Valley can address harassment in social media platforms, Black Lives Matter’s Chinyere Tutashinda talked about her experiences online as a black social activist, confirming Pew’s findings by remarking on the ways that people of color are targeted disproportionately online:

    CHINYERE TUTASHINDA: I work within the social justice movement, and there’s no one, especially in the black community, who doesn’t expect harassment online. It’s just replicating what happens in the real world, right? How do we make other people know and care?

    [...]

    There is a lack of diversity in who’s creating platforms and tools. Too often it’s not about people, it’s about how to take this tool and make the most money off it. As long as people are using it, it doesn’t matter how they’re using it. There’s still profit to earn from it. So until those cultures really shift in the companies themselves, it’s really difficult to be able to have structures that are combating harassment.

    [...]

    Diversity plays a huge role in shifting the culture of organizations and companies. Outside of that, being able to broaden the story helps. There has been a lot of media on cyberbullying, for example, and how horrible it is for young people. And now there are whole curricula in elementary and high schools. There’s been a huge campaign around it, and the culture is shifting. The same needs to happen when it comes to harassment. Not just about young people but about the ways in which people of color are treated.

    Experts have weighed in on the specific implications of social media platforms lacking racial diversity among their ranks. As Alice Marwick, a fellow for the Data & Society Research Institute, pointed out on Quartz,“the people who build social technologies are primarily white and Asian men” and because “white, male technologists don’t feel vulnerable to harassment” in the same way that minorities or people of color do, they often fail to incorporate protections against online abuse in their digital designs.

    To illustrate Marwick’s point, take Twitter’s mute button, a feature that can filter unwanted content from users' timelines, making it easier for users to avoid abusive content directed at them. As Leslie Miley -- a black former engineering manager at Twitter who left the company specifically because of how it was addressing diversity issues -- told The Nation, the feature wasn’t perfected until a diverse group of people worked together to fix it:

    [Leslie] Miley was a part of a diverse team at Twitter that he says proves his point. His first project as the engineering manager was to fix Twitter’s “mute” option, a feature that allows users to filter from their timelines unwanted tweets, such as the kind of harassment and personal attacks that many prominent women have experienced on the platform.

    “Twitter released a version in the past that did not go over well. They were so badly received by critics and the public that they had to be rolled back. No one wanted to touch the project,” says Miley. So he pulled together a team from across the organization, including women and people of color. “Who better to build the feature than people who often experience abuse online?” he asks. The result was a new “mute” option that was roundly praised as a major step by Twitter to address bullying and abuse.

    The blind spots caused by racial homogeneity might also delay platforms’ responses to rampant harassment. As documented by Model View Culture magazine, far-right troll and white nationalist sympathizer Milo Yiannopoulos was allowed to rampantly harass users for years on Twitter before getting permanently banned for his “sustained racist and sexist” harassment of African-American comedian Leslie Jones. As Model View Culture points out, racial diversity could be extremely helpful in addressing the challenge social media platforms face in content moderation:

    From start to finish of the moderation pipeline, the lack of input from people who have real, lived experience with dealing with these issues shows. Policy creators likely aren’t aware of the many, subtle ways that oppressive groups use the vague wording of the TOS to silence marginalized voices. Not having a background in dealing with that sort of harassment, they simply don’t have the tools to identify these issues before they arise.

    The simple solution is adding diversity to staff. This means more than just one or two people from marginalized groups; the representation that would need to be present to make a real change is far larger than what exists in the population. Diversity needs to be closer to 50% of the staff in charge of policy creation and moderation to ensure that they are actually given equal time at the table and their voices aren’t overshadowed by the overwhelming majority. Diversity and context must also be considered in outsourcing moderation. The end moderation team, when it comes to social issues specific to location, context and identity, needs to have the background and lived experience to process those reports.

    To get better, platforms must also address how user-generated reports are often weaponized against people of color. Although there’s nothing that can be done about the sheer numbers of majority-White users on platforms, better, clearer policy that helps them question their own bias would likely stop many reports from being generated in the first place. It may also help to implement more controls that would stop targeted mass-reporting of pages and communities by and for marginalized people.

    Ultimately, acknowledging these issues in the moderation pipeline is the first step to correcting them. Social media platforms must step away from the idea that they are inherently “fair,” and accept that their idea of “fairness” in interaction is skewed simply by virtue of being born of a culture steeped in White Supremacy and patriarchy.

  • Complaints about Facebook selectively silencing conservatives are not based in reality

    Users across the political spectrum are feeling the effects of Facebook’s haphazard approach to battling fake news and hate speech

    Blog ››› ››› DINA RADTKE

    Republican lawmakers repeatedly asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about alleged anti-conservative political bias on Facebook during two days of hearings on Capitol Hill this week. But this perceived bias has largely been fabricated or exaggerated by conservative media figures who complain that Facebook’s effort to address misinformation and online abuse is a front for suppressing conservative opinion. If anything, Facebook’s problem is its lack of transparency and inconsistent policy enforcement.

    Leading up to the hearings, which were initially billed as focused on Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s use of user data, conservative media figures had focused on supposed suppression of conservative views.

    Fox host Sean Hannity, Fox’s Tucker Carlson, Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson, The Gateway Pundit, and others had complained about supposed censorship by Facebook. In recent days, far-right commentators Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, who go by Diamond and Silk, had also pushed the issue, appearing multiple times on Fox News and claiming that Facebook was trying to silence them by labeling their content “unsafe.”

    Facebook has said this was an enforcement error. Subsequent reporting showed that it was also a hoax: Think Progress has debunked their claim that they are being censored, citing data from CrowdTangle to report that their comments are “totally without merit.” Conservative commentator Erick Erickson published an email from Facebook contradicting what the two said on Fox News. In addition, their website -- diamondandsilkinc.americanewscentral.com -- is part of the same Young Conservatives LLC network that Media Matters highlighted in March. As BuzzFeed's Craig Silverman has previously explained, websites affiliated with Young Conservative "are using an increasingly popular tactic of quickly hopping from one domain name to another in order to blunt the impact of Facebook’s recent News Feed algorithm changes." 

    Despite these facts, during Zuckerberg’s testimony, multiple Republicans used a rare opportunity to question one of the world’s most powerful people to ask about Diamond and Silk. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in particular drew online applause from conservatives for pursuing this angle.

    Recent data from the social media analytics company NewsWhip found the overall claim of conservative bias to be unfounded as well: Conservative websites continued to get more engagements than left-wing websites even after Facebook changed its algorithm to prioritize news shared by friends over news shared by publishers. And there have been a number of instances in which Facebook has banned posts made by liberal and other non-conservative users -- or even suspended them:

    • Journalist and activist ljeoma Oluo was suspended from Facebook after she posted screenshots of racist comments and threats against her. Facebook  later apologized.
    • Facebook removed a quote from black blogger Layla Saad’s page and then censored a follow-up post. Facebook later apologized for the error.
    • Facebook wrongfully deleted a post from a black woman describing verbal abuse she and her sons encountered for her race at a grocery store (later restoring it) as well as posts from a Muslim activist detailing Islamophobic threats against a mosque (she later received an automated apology and one post was restored).
    • Facebook banned posts from a group of Rohingya Muslims fighting persecution in Myanmar. (The company has also drawn criticism from the United Nations for its role in the spread of hate speech in the country.)
    • Black and transgender activists organized a petition against Facebook’s often-unjustified censorship of minority voices.

    Conservatives have long alleged that there is an anti-conservative bias in the media, and their complaints about social media may well be an outgrowth of that perception. But another factor in their disproportionately loud outcry likely stems from Facebook’s efforts to crack down on fake news, conspiracy theories, and online harassment, which are more prevalent in conservative circles than in others. While Facebook and other media companies are still struggling to deal with these problems in a transparent and consistent way, there is evidence that some right-wing users may be using these platforms irresponsibly and thus feeling the impact more strongly than others.

    And there’s a real opportunity cost in focusing on this outcry. During the hearings, Zuckerberg was asked just one question about Facebook’s role in the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, according to The Daily Beast. Lawmakers also showed a reluctance to confront Zuckerberg over many other serious questions about the social media giant. Facebook and other tech platforms have serious problems to deal with; forcing them to focus on dubious issues distracts from efforts to solve them.

  • A network with websites registered overseas is pushing fake news to Americans through Facebook

    The websites are registered in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    A number of Facebook pages, accounts, and groups pushing fake news and hyperpartisan content to Americans are linked to websites registered in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The pages have nearly 200,000 followers combined and the groups have nearly 60,000 followers combined. This is another example of foreign actors spreading fake news on Facebook.

    At least four Facebook pages, Trump Lovers, The Legends Of Nation, Amazing America, and Fox News HD (which has no connection to Fox News), have repeatedly linked to and are connected to the sites urduchanel.com, usavison.com, amazngamerica.com, americahunks.com, and urdukhabarnaama.com. The first four sites are registered to a “Qasim Saeed” in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and urdukhabarnaama.com is registered to a “shahak” in Mirpur, Pakistan. The Facebook pages have regularly linked to different fake stories and hyperpartisan content, with Trump Lovers, The Legends Of Nation, and Amazing America sharing many of the posts from the “Fox News HD” Facebook page.

    The Amazing America Facebook page also has a pinned post which invites users to a private group called Trump Supporters 2020.

    User accounts Trump TRAIN, Muhammad Saleem, Zeng Jianfu, and Shaida Manzoor are in the list of administrators and moderators who run Trump Supporters 2020. Saleem’s account lists the Trump Lovers page as its workplace. Manzoor’s account has not only repeatedly promoted the group, but also wrote in an October post, “Need a frends who add frends in my group i will pay 5$ per 1000 members any body intrusted to do it i m ready for deal (sic).” A user responded to her post claiming he could do it if paid, to which Manzoor responded, “Come inbox i want to check first (sic).” It is unclear if the transaction happened.

    As BuzzFeed has noted, this practice of trying to buy members for groups violates Facebook’s terms of service.

    Another group, President Donald J. Trump, Melania, Ivanka, Tiffany group, has nearly 52,000 members, and is run by some of the same accounts that are operating the Trump Supporters 2020 group, including Manzoor.

    The accounts running the President Donald J. Trump, Melania, Ivanka, Tiffany group have repeatedly posted fake stories and hyperpartisan content from these Middle Eastern and Pakistani sites there:

    The accounts have also posted memes pushing fake news and hyperpartisan content, along with promoting urduchanel.com.

    Fake news in American politics is a worldwide problem, not just centered around Eastern Europe. And some of these foreign sites monetize their fake news with Google AdSense (whose ads include the tag “AdChoices” at the top right). Facebook groups, whose content the platform plans to make more prominent in users’ news feeds, are now a hotspot for foreign meddling.

  • Mark Zuckerberg says Facebook is catching foreigners interfering in elections. Here's what it missed.

    Foreign accounts pushed multiple fake stories alleging voter fraud in Alabama and Pennsylvania special congressional elections

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Over the past couple of weeks, Facebook leaders including CEO Mark Zuckerberg have been repeating the talking point that the platform has found and deleted foreign accounts that pushed fake news about the December Alabama Senate special election. Zuckerberg even suggested that the accounts were deleted before they impacted “discussion around the election.” Yet a search by Media Matters has found multiple still-operational foreign accounts that pushed fake stories about special elections in both Alabama and Pennsylvania, most of which claimed voter fraud.

    After Facebook came under fire over Cambridge Analytica, the data firm used by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, collecting information from millions of accounts, Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives spoke with multiple news outlets to try to contain the fallout over both that scandal and Facebook’s misinformation problems. In an interview with The New York Times, Zuckerberg claimed the company had “deployed some new A.I. tools to identify fake accounts and false news” about the Alabama election, “and we found a significant number of Macedonian accounts that were trying to spread false news, and were able to eliminate those.” The following week, Facebook’s product manager also told reporters that the platform was “able to identify a previously unknown set [of] Macedonian political spammers that appeared to be financially motivated” during the Alabama election and “we then quickly blocked them from our platform.” And in an interview with Vox a few days later, Zuckerberg claimed that “we got [the accounts] off before a lot of the discussion around the election.”

    Yet a Media Matters review has found that not only are there still multiple operational foreign accounts that posted fake stories about the Alabama election, but also that some of the things those accounts posted seem to have delegitimized the election in the eyes of many users who saw them. Many of their posts were derived from made-up stories from self-proclaimed troll Christopher Blair. They include the following:

    • A fake story that Alabama’s state election board invalidated more than a third of Democratic candidate Doug Jones’ votes was spammed into a pro-Trump Facebook group by an account that has had foreign activity and is friends with multiple Russian-based accounts. A user wrote “Good” in the comments section, while another suggested billionaire George Soros was involved in voter fraud.

    • A fake story that a “van full of illegals” was caught at multiple voting locations in Alabama where the passengers voted was shared by a page that has repeatedly linked to another site that is registered in Macedonia. People commented under the post that it was “no surprise” and that “Soros, Clinton, Obama, are paying this thugs (sic).”

    • A fake story that military ballots had significantly decreased the vote gap between Republican candidate Roy Moore and Jones was spammed into multiple pro-Trump Facebook groups by accounts that were either obviously foreign or had foreign activity on their pages. Some people who saw the fake story suggested it was related to supposed corruption in Alabama’s voting system, indicated they hoped that the story was correct, or noted that they saw it as proof of what they already believed.

    • A fake story that one of the women who reported sexual misbehavior by Moore was arrested and charged with falsification was spammed into multiple pro-Trump Facebook groups by an account based in Macedonia.

    Facebook also seemed to miss foreign accounts that pushed fake news about voter fraud (also originally from Blair via his site dailyworldupdate.com) in the Pennsylvania House special election in March. An account that has foreign activity on its page posted a fake story from a Macedonian site in a pro-Trump group; it stated that a federal judge had nullified the election due to “wide-scale voter fraud.” While some correctly recognized the story was fake, other users wrote “hope it’s true” and “never know .. Dems with Soros have a lot of fraud going on.” The story was originally posted on a Facebook page likely connected to the same Macedonian site (it has repeatedly posted links from the site). Those who saw the fake story on that page wrote that it showed that we “will never have fair elections without voter ID,” that “voter ID is so important,” and that “Dems could not win without voter fraud.”

    When asked by CNN about the possibility of someone using Facebook to meddle in the midterm elections, Zuckerberg said he was “sure someone's trying." He’s right. And Facebook’s failure to successfully shut down such users in Alabama and Pennsylvania suggests it will likely miss more foreign meddling this fall. And given that Facebook’s recent changes to its algorithms now mean content from groups, where much of this meddling occured, is more prominent in users’ news feeds, fake news posts in pro-Trump groups may very well be viewed by more people.

  • A pro-Trump online store is using smears against Parkland teens to promote its merch on Facebook

    Blog ››› ››› NATALIE MARTINEZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Facebook pages affiliated with the Coalition for Trump Superstore are using memes smearing Parkland shooting survivors David Hogg and Emma González to promote a merchandise giveaway on the store’s website. In addition, pages linked to right-wing clickbait sites that are publishing attacks against Hogg and González are also separately pushing the Coalition for Trump Superstore’s site.  

    Since March 28, a network of at least 16 Facebook pages apparently affiliated with the Coalition for Trump Superstore has been posting memes attacking Hogg and González while advertising the site FreeTrumpHat.info, which links back to the Coalition for Trump Superstore’s site. Pages in this network posted the same memes promoting the free hat giveaway, linked to the Coalition for Trump Superstore, shared each other’s posts, and promoted the same Facebook pages and groups in posts.

    Facebook pages in the network include:

    Donald Trump, The Political Movement

    Hillary Clinton Sucks

    The Deplorables

    Defiant America

    Trey Gowdy, Liberals’ Worst Nightmare

    Trump 2020

    Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to the President

    Build That Wall

    Donald Trump for President 2020

    Jeff Petermann - The Conservinator

    Perfectly Offensive

    Smashing Leftist Liberals

    Americans Against Maxine Waters

    Americans Against Oprah Winfrey

    Americans Against Nancy Pelosi

    Americans Against Elizabeth Warren

    Most of these memes have gained viral traction on Facebook since Hogg’s call to boycott Fox News host Laura Ingraham’s advertisers. At least 18 memes posted since March 28 have received over 2,000 engagements each, with the most popular post getting over 49,000 engagements.

    The Coalition for Trump Superstore is operated by America First Coalition, a group that seems to use social media to connect grass-roots conservative movements across the United States. America First Coalition also runs a cluster of small pro-Trump Facebook groups, including at least one group targeting Trump supporters in each individual state and Washington, D.C.  

    At least two other Facebook pages corresponding to conservative clickbait sites link their Facebook stores to the Coalition for Trump Superstore. The Facebook page run by Overpasses for America, a far-right fake news site, recently began promoting the Trump hat giveaway on its timeline. Overpasses for America has aggressively smeared Hogg and González over the past week, calling Hogg a Nazi, sharing sexist memes, targeting their ages, and promoting the far right conspiracy theory that Hogg was not present at the school during the shooting.

    The Facebook page Trump Times also frequently promotes the Trump hat giveaway and smeared Hogg by comparing him to Hitler.

  • Facebook failed to protect consumers from Cambridge Analytica. Only systemic changes can prevent that from happening again.

    50 million reasons to be mad at Facebook

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Tech companies have repeatedly failed to protect the consumers who use their platforms, and despite the outrage that arises when news of another failure breaks, remarkably little has been done to fix the problem. Consumers have been left to deal with fake news, predatory political ads, and data breaches largely on their own without assistance from companies, government, or other institutions. We’re dealing with systemic failures of the social media ecosystem, but the solutions offered largely call on individuals to sort out their online experience for themselves.

    This past weekend, a series of stories broke that illustrate just how colossal those failures are. On Friday, 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 “violating its policies around data collection and retention,” as The Verge described it. On Saturday, 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.

    Via The New York Times:

    The firm had secured a $15 million investment from Robert Mercer, the wealthy Republican donor, and wooed his political adviser, Stephen K. Bannon, with the promise of tools that could identify the personalities of American voters and influence their behavior. But it did not have the data to make its new products work.

    So the firm harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission, according to former Cambridge employees, associates and documents, making it one of the largest data leaks in the social network’s history. The breach allowed the company to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the American electorate, developing techniques that underpinned its work on President Trump’s campaign in 2016.

    Carole Cadwalladr of The Observer worked with whistleblower Christopher Wylie for over a year to expose Cambridge Analytica’s practices and Facebook’s complicity in allowing them:

    Wylie oversaw what may have been the first critical breach. Aged 24, while studying for a PhD in fashion trend forecasting, he came up with a plan to harvest the Facebook profiles of millions of people in the US, and to use their private and personal information to create sophisticated psychological and political profiles. And then target them with political ads designed to work on their particular psychological makeup.

    “We ‘broke’ Facebook,” he says.

    And he did it on behalf of his new boss, Steve Bannon.

    “Is it fair to say you ‘hacked’ Facebook?” I ask him one night. He hesitates. “I’ll point out that I assumed it was entirely legal and above board.”

    It’s particularly troubling that this stolen data was used in a political campaign. Cambridge Analytica has long had a reputation for being “shady”; during the 2016 Republican primaries, many GOP consultants complained about the company’s practices and methodology. Democratic data consultants have also speculated prior to this week’s revelations that Cambridge Analytica would have had to steal data in order to do the work its team has bragged about doing. Even the Trump campaign, despite having staff from Cambridge Analytica embedded in its headquarters, attempted to deny that the company had done what it had claimed: used psychographic profiling to help Trump win.

    More troubling is the connection to Russia. In 2014, Chris Wylie was asked to help Cambridge Analytica prepare a pitch to Vagit Alekperov, a Russian oligarch and the CEO of Lukoil. “It didn’t make any sense to me,” he told The Guardian, "I didn’t understand either the email or the pitch presentation we did. Why would a Russian oil company want to target information on American voters?” The eventual presentation “focused on election disruption techniques,” The Guardian reported. “The first slide illustrates how a ‘rumour campaign’ spread fear in the 2007 Nigerian election – in which the company worked – by spreading the idea that the ‘election would be rigged’. The final slide, branded with Lukoil’s logo and that of SCL Group and SCL Elections, headlines its ‘deliverables’: ‘psychographic messaging.’”

    An illegal data breach. Russian oligarchs. Psychographic profiling to manipulate voters. Social media is breaking democracy, aided by companies with shady practices and politicians who have turned a blind eye. By not disclosing the leak and allowing Cambridge Analytica to continue using its platform, Facebook failed us. By not asking more questions and considering regulations much earlier, political leaders on two continents, have failed us as well. What’s a social media user supposed to do? And remember, this is to say nothing about similar commercial practices on Facebook.

    The only recourse we consumers have is to demand systemic changes. Tech companies must feel more pressure from us. Governments and regulatory bodies must be similarly pressured to force tech companies to protect consumers using regulations and legislation. We need more citizens like Parsons professor David Carroll, who is mounting a legal effort against Cambridge Analytica, to explore the potential of lawsuits.

    We have 50 million reasons to be mad at Facebook. If that anger can be turned into action, the potential exists to create a global consumer movement on a scale never seen before. Social media is broken, but with the right amount of pressure we can force the tech giants, starting with Facebook, to fix themselves.

  • These right-wing pundits keep posting identical Facebook remarks to promote a clickbait website

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC HANANOKI


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    When House Republicans released the results of their investigation claiming to clear President Donald Trump of colluding with Russia during the 2016 election, the Facebook pages of several right-wing pundits posted strikingly similar thoughts at roughly the same time.

    “The news we’ve all been waiting for,” wrote former Fox News personality and current congressional candidate Stacey Dash.

    “The news we’ve all been waiting for,” remarked Sarah Palin.

    “The news we’ve all been waiting for,” CNN political commentator Ben Ferguson and Media Research Center senior fellow Allen West both wrote.

    That same pattern has repeated itself for months: Pundits post identical (or virtually identical) remarks, quips, or paragraph-long commentaries, along with a link to a website owned by Young Conservatives LLC.

    It’s not a coincidence. Commentators such as Dash, Ferguson, Palin, and West all have websites connected to Young Conservatives and they all regularly share the clickbait company's content. Young Conservatives' main news site is currently americanewscentral.com. If you’ve never heard of that site it's likely because it was launched in just the past few months -- and it will likely soon be defunct.

    BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman explained this month that the company has been using a practice called domain hopping, “an increasingly popular tactic of quickly hopping from one domain name to another in order to blunt the impact of Facebook’s recent News Feed algorithm changes. It’s also used by publishers as a way to stay one step ahead of blacklists used by brands and agencies to keep their ads off controversial or inflammatory websites.” He added that West's own page at allenwestblog.americanewscentral.com has already "used more than a dozen different domains with his name in them" since January 2017.

    The extent of Young Conservatives’ involvement with those right-wing pundits is unclear. The company did not respond to an inquiry from Media Matters and declined an earlier request for comment from BuzzFeed about “Sarah Palin or its other partners.”

    Media Matters sent requests for comment to Dash through emails listed on her campaign documents and to Ferguson, Palin, and West through website contact forms but did not hear back as of posting. (A disclaimer on Palin's Facebook page indicates that she does not personally write many of the remarks on her account, stating that posts “by Sarah Palin” are signed “SP.”)

    Media Matters also sent an inquiry to the group Chicks on the Right, asking about a post on its Facebook page that included identical remarks to those of other pundits and for clarification regarding its relationship with Young Conservatives. Co-founder Miriam Weaver responded in a blog post by criticizing Media Matters and writing that it's "absolutely none of Media Matters’ business (or anyone’s, really)" whom the group works with and what financial relationships it has. She also defended the identifical Facebook post practice, stating, in part, that “we share their story the way it appears on their page, and they share our story the way it appears on our page – hence, the identical language. It’s less work that way, you see.” From Chicks on the Right's post (emphasis in original):

    Here’s the deal. Once a day, usually sometime in the evening hours, we share a post from our friends, the Young Conservatives, on our Facebook page, which we and ONLY WE manage. They, in turn, share one of our posts on their Facebook page. It’s a lovely partnership – one that allows us to cross-promote with our respective audiences. It costs us nothing to share their posts, and it costs them nothing to share ours. It’s a mutual swap, if you will. Once a day. And we share their story the way it appears on their page, and they share our story the way it appears on our page – hence, the identical language. It’s less work that way, you see. It appears, from the OH-SO-SCANDALOUS link that Media Matters included in their email, that the Young Cons have similar relationships with other folks as well. Good for them, I say. I love to see conservatives helping each other out. The more the conservative message gets out to the masses, the better!

    A Media Matters review of the Young Conservatives-connected pundits found numerous posts promoting affiliated content that contained identical or virtually identical remarks.

    One of the most frequent cut-and-pasters is Republican political commentator Stacey Dash. She has continued to post links to Young Conservatives content even though she’s running for Congress in California and her Facebook page is connected to her campaign website.

    The posts push conservative tropes and sometimes veer into vitriol. For instance, Dash, Ferguson, and West have repeatedly criticized and mocked the survivors of the February 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.

    [Dash, Ferguson, West]

    [Dash, Ferguson, West]

    [Dash, Ferguson, West]

    Here are some of the many examples of identical remarks from Young Conservatives-affiliated pundits.

    Dash, Ferguson, and West had the same reaction to an NFL story:

    Dash, Ferguson, and West had the same “Yeehaw!” reaction to a federal court ruling:

    Chicks on the RightFerguson, and Palin had the same two-sentence reaction to a court decision about California. West, however, opted to use "isn't a good idea" instead of "isn't panning out."

    And here are Dash and Ferguson doing an "insert sarcasm here" joke just one minute apart:

    Even purported first-person posts are cut and pasted across different accounts. Here are Dash and Ferguson making an observation about the Parkland shooting at the same time:

    Here are Dash and Ferguson writing about Enterprise Rent-A-Car at the same time:

    And here they are talking about Trump:

    To be fair, their posts are not always identical. When Dash and Ferguson claimed they may have found themselves a new church, Ferguson opted not to include the word “freaking”:

  • New research shows Trump’s army spreads the most “junk news.” Here’s why it matters

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Our media ecosystem is broken. Americans are continually pummeled online with computational propaganda campaigns, including fake news and manipulated trending topics on Facebook and Twitter. These campaigns drive political conversation from social media feeds to cable news to the White House, but there’s been little acknowledgment of this reality in mainstream political coverage.

    Two academic studies, one recent and one from last year, give us a good sense of how social media manipulation plays out online. This week, Oxford Internet Institute’s Computational Propaganda Project released a study that illustrates the disconnect in American political discourse. The study analyzed “junk news” (the term researchers used for fake news and other kinds of misinformation) shared on Twitter and Facebook in the three months leading up to President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address. It found that on Twitter, Trump supporters shared 95 percent of “junk news” websites that the researchers had identified for their sample, accounting for 55 percent of “junk news traffic in the sample.” Other audiences also shared links from these “junk news sites” but at much lower rate. On Facebook, far-right pages that the researchers collectively called “Hard Conservative Group,” shared 91 percent of the “junk news sites,” accounting for 58 percent of total “junk news” traffic from the sample.

    The study’s conclusion of the overall American political conversation online is worth highlighting: “The two main political parties, Democrats, and Republicans prefer different sources of political news, with limited overlap. For instance, the Democratic Party shows high levels of engagement with mainstream media sources and the Republican Party with Conservative Media Groups.” This is similar to last year’s Harvard Berkman Klein Center study of traditional media and social media coverage leading up to the 2016 election. According to the author, whereas liberals and Democrats get their news from mainstream media that are ideologically structured from the center to the left, conservatives increasingly rely on only right and far-right sources in their news consumption.

    Social media filter bubbles have received a lot of media coverage but they’re only part of the problem. American political conversation doesn’t just exist in filter bubbles. The influence is lopsided. Right-wing media and social media influence both mainstream media and, by extension, the liberals’ filter bubble (because liberals consume more mainstream news). But the reverse isn’t true.

    Media coverage of #ReleaseTheMemo is a prime example of the problem of the manipulation related to this conservative filter bubble. Information warfare expert Molly McKew wrote a detailed analysis of the computational propaganda campaign that pushed the hashtag to go viral on social media, detailing how #ReleaseTheMemo was a “targeted, 11-day information operation” amplified by both Russian trolls and American Trump supporters to “change both public perceptions and the behavior of American lawmakers.” McKew noted that this campaign, which is part of a far-right echo chamber, is “not just about information, but about changing behavior,” and that it can be “surprisingly effective.” But Playbook, Politico’s premier political news product, mentioned the article almost in passing the day after its release, in some ways proving McKew’s point. Despite the fact that Playbook had covered #ReleaseTheMemo campaign often in the previous week, McKew’s article was mentioned far down Sunday’s edition of the newsletter, below a recap of Saturday Night Live’s political sketches.

    Playbook Screenshot

    Computational propaganda is now a standard practice in political communications. Despite the growing body of research studying the phenomenon, media coverage rarely acknowledges the role computational propaganda plays in shaping American political conversation. This disconnect is troubling when you consider how often trending topics on social media drive political media coverage.

    As the Oxford study shows, Trump and his army of supporters online are in the driver’s seat. What we see as trending on social media often isn’t organic but the result of sophisticated amplification campaigns, which are part of a far-right echo chamber. The goal of computational propaganda is to manipulate public opinion and behavior. Covering politics in this environment requires both a working knowledge of computational propaganda and a duty to explain to readers when political interest is driven by social media manipulation.

  • Facebook pulled down several pages pretending to represent Native Americans that push fake news. There’s more to go.

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    UPDATE: Since the publication of this article, all of the Facebook pages identified by Media Matters have been taken down.

    Facebook has removed multiple pages that pretended to represent Native Americans but were actually pushing fake news stories linked to websites seemingly from Kosovo. However, a Media Matters review found that the network runs much deeper.

    After Media Matters discovered eight purported “Native American” Facebook pages pushing fake news, Facebook removed them. But an additional review has found at least 18 more Facebook pages that appear to be part of the network. Not every page is branded as Native American, but the similarities between these pages and the fake news they share suggest they are interconnected. All together, the pages have an audience of more than 3.8 million followers.

    The additional pages are:

    There are an abundance of similarities between these Facebook pages. The pages in this network often share the same fake news stories, from the same sources, around the same time. Additionally, some of the pages have direct connections to Kosovo as well as similar cover photos.

    One of The Native American Tribes pages, @Native.american.Trib, has repeatedly posted fake stories from the website Health Remedies, which features ads powered by Google AdSense and is registered to a person in Obiliq, Kosovo, the same town to which some of the pages Media Matters previously discovered were connected. These stories include one that falsely stated the police officer who arrested former first daughter Malia Obama was found dead under suspicious circumstances (she was also never arrested), that singer Miley Cyrus said she is leaving the U.S. and will never come back, and that actor Bruce Willis said President Donald Trump is the greatest president ever. Similarly, the Native American Beauties page is connected to and has posted fake stories from the website Gold Articles, which also has connections to Kosovo.

    Other pages also have a pattern of posting the same fake stories at almost the same time. The page Native American Tribe (@nativeamericantribe2017) is connected to the website Help Animals, which is also registered in Obiliq. The page has posted fake stories (including the ones about Cyrus and Willis) from the website General News, sometimes at almost the exact same time they were posted on the pages Native - Everything Everywhere and Everything - Beautiful Photos. Two other pages, Native Americans - Photo - Music and Animals-Wild Passengers, have also posted the same fake stories from that website at almost the same time. One of the Native American Tribes pages, @Nativeamericantribes24h, also published the Malia Obama story and another one from the website Indigenous Network at the same time as the verified page Wolf Spirit when it was up. Indigenous Network has the same IP address as a website promoting cryptocurrency, according to analytic tool Trendolizer.

    Other pages show the same pattern. The pages Strong Native, Native Americans (@ProNativeAmericans), and Spirit of Natives posted the Cyrus fake story from the website Your LATEST info at the exact same time. Similarly, Strong Native and Spirit of Natives posted the same link from the website On Latest News with the same text within an hour of each other. Two more pages, Native Americans Daily and Native American Culture and Spirituality, have posted fake stories from the website NativeCulture (which features ads via AdSense), sometimes posting the same story, such as the one about Malia Obama, within a close timespan. The page Native American News has posted the fake news about Malia Obama from a website also called Native American News. Although that website’s registration information is blocked, that fake Malia Obama story it published had been posted by these other pages in this network. Three more pages, Native Americans Proud, Native Spirit, and Native American Cherokee, are all connected to the website NativeOnline, whose registration information is blocked but has published the same fake Malia Obama story.

    Additionally, many of these pages carry the same kind of cover photo as the pages previously identified by Media Matters, which urge users to change their news feed settings so the pages appear at the top of their news feeds, with the photos carrying the text “Don’t Miss A Single One Of Our Updates” and “Don’t Miss A Single Post Of Our Page.”

    In total, Media Matters has identified more than 25 Facebook pages that, for the most part, use the pretense of being pages about Native American culture in order to push fake news. And it is quite possible that this network extends to other pages Media Matters has not yet found. This network of scammy pages spreading fake news for clicks is already clearly extensive, and is yet another example of the Facebook’s ongoing misinformation problem.

    UPDATE #2: On February 7, BuzzFeed reported that multiple Facebook pages pushing fake news are using Facebook’s Instant Articles feature. The feature allows “publishers to have their articles load quickly and natively” and “insert their own ads or use Facebook’s ad network, Audience Network, to automatically place” ads in the articles. Facebook receives a portion of ad revenue if the pages use Audience Network. One of the pages BuzzFeed noted was using this feature was called Native American News, which has the same name and shared the same fake Malia Obama story as one of the pages that was in the fake news network mentioned in this piece. If this is the same page, and if Native American News employed Audience Network while using the Instant Articles feature (which, as BuzzFeed noted, almost every Instant Article it found employed), it would mean that Facebook earned revenue from at least part of this fake news network.