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  • The head of an anti-immigration PAC runs Facebook pages that share fake news from plagiarized sites

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    William Gheen, the head of an anti-immigrant political action committee, controls multiple Facebook pages that have repeatedly linked to hyperpartisan and fake news content from a handful of sites. Those sites feature nearly exclusively plagiarized content, which Google AdSense is monetizing.

    The pages No Welfare For illegals and Prosecute Obama, which have more than 450,000 followers combined, are run by Gheen, the president of the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, or ALIPAC. Both pages ask people to sign up for email alerts from ALIPAC. Gheen has used staunchly anti-immigrant rhetoric in the past, and the Southern Poverty Law Center listed him as one of “20 nativist leaders” in 2008. Gheen has also been an opinion contributor for The Hill.

    From January through late May, both Facebook pages repeatedly linked to stories -- often not related to immigration -- from the sites proconservativesnews.com, thedeplorablesociety.com, thedeplorablegroup.com, and unite4america.com, all of which were registered this year. The pages followed a pattern, linking to one domain for a while before seemingly abandoning it and moving on to the next. The two pages have also intermittently posted content about ALIPAC during this time, making it unlikely that the pages may have been hacked.

    While the domain registration information for these four sites is masked, making it harder to definitively connect them, the pages Gheen runs have regularly and nearly exclusively posted content from those sites. Alongside those two pages, the pages Impeach Dianne Feinstein, Unite For Trump, Stop Corrupt Politicians (which has also promoted ALIPAC’s work), and God, Gold, & Guns - An American Tradition have often posted the same stories from those sites, many times at almost the exact same time and with the same accompanying language, suggesting that a same entity has been administering all of these pages and that the sites are also connected to that entity.

    The false claims that these pages have pushed from these sites include:

    • A fake story that WikiLeaks revealed that former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton tried to bribe Republican presidential candidates in 2016 to oppose then-candidate Donald Trump. Three of the pages posted a link to the piece on February 5 at the exact same time, with the message, “Should Trump be allowed to Prosecute Hillary? Comment YES or NO.”

    • A false claim that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said, “It’s racist to only allow citizens to vote.” Three of the pages posted a link to the piece on January 24 at the exact same time.

    • A fake story that some celebrities called for a “total Hollywood strike” until Trump resigns. Two of the pages posted a link to the piece on January 30 at the exact same time.

    • A misleading article suggesting that the House ethics committee recently charged Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) “on 3 counts.” In reality, the incident had happened in 2010 and the charges were eventually dropped. Three of the pages posted a link to the piece on February 7 at the exact same time.

    • A false story that former first lady Michelle Obama said that “stupid women elected Trump.” Three of the pages posted a link to the piece on May 7 at the exact same time.

    • A false story with a clickbait headline that Trump made Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) “the most powerful man in Capitol Hill.” Three of the pages posted a link to the piece on February 4 at the exact same time, with the message, “It’s time the swamp gets drained. Now Gowdy can do just that.”

    • A misleading article suggesting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen “confirm[ed] they are preparing to arrest sanctuary city leaders,” when in reality she said only that she asked the Justice Department to look into possible charges against certain officials. Three of the pages posted a link to the piece on February 4 at the exact same time, with the message, “Do it. Can't wait to see Schemer (sic) and Cuomo in cuffs.”

    • A false story originating from dubious site True Pundit (which former national security adviser Michael Flynn has also pushed on Twitter) that claimed the New York Police Department found emails on former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D-NY) server that would “put Hillary … away for life.” Four of the pages posted a link to the piece on May 27 at nearly the exact same time.

    • A false story that former President Barack Obama had a “connection” to the Parkland, FL, mass shooting suspect. Three of the pages posted a link to the piece on May 7 at nearly the exact same time.

    Additionally, many of these pages have also:

    • linked to a piece from these sites -- all at the same time -- smearing Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg as “Little Hitler” and writing that he needs a “reality check on his place in the world”;

    • linked to a piece claiming The Economist, which it called the Rothschild family’s “global media mouthpiece,” said Trump was “threatening to destroy the New World Order,” with the text, “What's Your Response?”; and

    • linked to a piece falsely claiming that “Obama's family published his Kenyan birth certificate.”

    At least two of the sites that the pages have previously linked to, thedeplorablesociety.com and unite4america.com, are not only still being updated with plagiarized content, but are also now being spammed into Facebook groups by accounts whose activity suggests they are run from South Asia.

    In addition to the fact that many of the pieces are false and misleading, almost every piece from these sites is plagiarized. The content is often taken from other hyperpartisan and conservative sites without attribution, and it is usually uploaded with a byline of “admin” or only a first name. Every article on these four sites carries advertisements provided by AdSense (whose ads include the tag “AdChoices” at the top right), even though the service’s policies prohibit its ads from being placed on pages that feature copyright infringement and/or “entic[e] users to engage with content under false or unclear pretenses.”

  • Right-wing media’s latest pathetic attempts to smear Google as leftist radicals

    The two latest conservative “scandals” about Google actually have innocuous explanations, but that’s never stopped right-wing media from making dishonest “censorship” claims before, and it won’t now either

    Blog ››› ››› BOBBY LEWIS


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Conservatives are using a pair of stories about Google search results to pile onto their claims that the tech company is intrinsically biased against conservatives. This claim is farcical nonsense, and it fits perfectly into a right-wing pattern of playing technology companies for fools with misleading or completely false accusations. 

    On May 31, Vice reported that Google search results for the California Republican Party listed “Nazism” as the party’s ideology in the knowledge panel, a section on the right side of the search page that quickly summarizes basic information on search queries. Then, on June 1, Vice also reported that the knowledge panel for North Carolina State Sen. Trudy Wade, a Republican, featured an image of her with “BIGOT” written at the bottom in red letters. Google has corrected both of these issues with its knowledge panels, which are automatically populated with information from a number of sources, some of which, like Wikipedia, anybody can edit any time. 

    Right-wing media predictably cry that Google has an anti-conservative bias

    Conservative media are using these stories to smear Google as a left-wing operative determined to take down Republicans. Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade repurposed an argument from the Hoover Institute’s Niall Ferguson to suggest that Silicon Valley was upset at the Trump campaign’s prolific use of social media during the 2016 election and was trying to tilt the midterm elections for the Democrats. Fox’s Stuart Varney lied about the Trudy Wade image, falsely claiming that “a Google staffer put a ‘bigot’ sign” on Wade’s photo. Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel said the California Republican Party search result showed that “evidence is mounting that conservative voices are either being suppressed” or “being falsely depicted as hateful extremists” on Google. And Breitbart News scandalized Wikipedia’s relationship with the knowledge panel, claiming that Wikipedia allegedly has a pro-CNN bias. 

    Members of Congress even got involved in the reactionary pile-on. House intelligence committee chairman and all-around embarrassment Devin Nunes (R-CA) told Fox Business that “we [would] have to move obviously to hearings on these issues” if Google continued to “get involved in politics” and “censor conservatives and Republicans.” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) suggested to MSNBC’s Hugh Hewitt that Google lied when it blamed the “Nazism” search result on Wikipedia, because he had “looked at Wikipedia” earlier “and it didn’t say ‘Nazism’” anywhere. 

    The right wing’s claims of bias are dishonest bullshit 

    As Google explained at the time, Nazism appeared in the California Republican Party knowledge panel because Google pulled the information from the party’s Wikipedia page, which had been “vandalized,” meaning it was deliberately incorrectly updated. Wired magazine reported that Wikipedia edit logs confirm that a user falsely edited the page to show “Nazism” as a core belief for the state party and that the note went undetected on the site for a week. It appeared on the Google knowledge panel because the search engine automatically “scrapes” Wikipedia to populate the feature. The edit logs might explain why McCarthy didn’t see “Nazism” on the page when he looked: The story broke on May 31 and he tweeted about it the same day, but Wikipedia had removed the “Nazism” claim from the California Republican Party page the day before

    Similarly, with Trudy Wade, Google removed the “bigot” image from her knowledge panel as soon as the issue was brought to its attention, but the search engine told her that she needed to ask the owner of the image to “take down or update the content” in order to completely remove it from search results. Wade complained during an appearance on the Sunday, June 3, edition of Fox & Friends Weekend that the image was still up, Matt Comer -- a North Carolina LGBTQ activist who first posted the image -- tweeted that Wade never contacted him, suggesting she is more interested in media hits than in actually getting the image removed.

    Furthermore, Paul Blest at Splinter News followed the money and found -- shockingly! -- that Google actually likes Republicans, especially Rep. McCarthy. For the 2016 and 2018 election cycles, political donations to Google’s PAC were split roughly evenly between Republicans and Democrats; in fact, Republicans got a bit more in 2016 than Democrats did. Additionally, McCarthy was one of the Google PAC’s “biggest recipients” in 2016 and got $10,000 in 2016 and another $5,000 in 2018 so far.

    Dishonest bullshit is the right wing’s trade, and business is booming

    As Media Matters has documented for over a decade, right-wing media outlets are expert traders in bullshit, and that trend has not slowed in the age of social media. Most recently, this trend has manifested itself with pro-Trump websites claiming the algorithmic changes at Facebook are censoring their content -- a charge pro-Trump social media figures Lynette “Diamond” Hardaway and Rochelle “Silk” Richardson are leading, while occasionally betraying their profound ignorance

    However, users across the political spectrum have seen their Facebook page views decline since the platform rolled out new rules against fake news and hate speech. In Diamond and Silk’s specific case, the drop in their video views was not even as significant as that of the left-leaning MSNBC prime-time program The Rachel Maddow Show, which “has a much larger [Facebook] page and is the most popular cable news program in the country.” 

    None of these facts have remotely slowed down Diamond and Silk’s quest to gain attention for their invented grievance. They push their deceit on Fox News and the network actively helps them spread lies about so-called “censorship.” They even brought their perjurious carnival show to the U.S. Congress. Republicans repeatedly asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about this alleged “censorship,” and the focus on the two vloggers took time and attention away from more serious issues Zuckerberg perhaps should have discussed with elected leaders.

    Compounding this problem is Google’s reliance on unaccountable third parties for its knowledge panels and search results, including, when it comes to Wikipedia, volunteer labor. While most Wikipedia users likely engage with the site in good faith, vandalism clearly remains a problem and those problems can sometimes trickle out into the larger world. Among conservative circles, there have been and continue to be active movements around astroturfing -- or falsifying the origins of -- online debate. In 2014, BuzzFeed News uncovered “Operation Lollipop,” an organized effort by users of far-right image boards and men’s rights websites to impersonate feminists and start fights among real activists. Then, on June 4, BuzzFeed News also reported on a far-reaching effort from similar extremist websites to flood comment sections on Disqus with hate speech in order to dominate the conversation and recruit new bigots. There is too much bad faith online for Google to be so reliant on the honor system.

    The simple truth about right-wing media and alleged censorship on social media is that fake news, conspiracy theories, and online harassment are all more prevalent in conservative circles than in others. So if conservative media spaces are feeling the impact of policy changes meant to combat such misinformation more harshly than others (if they are indeed feeling such an impact), then perhaps it’s right-wing audiences and content creators who are abusing the platforms, not the other way around. 

  • Here are the conspiracy theories and hoaxes being spread about the Santa Fe shooting

    Blog ››› ››› JOHN WHITEHOUSE & MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    A gunman has reportedly killed at least eight students at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, TX. The shooter is reportedly in custody. Conspiracy theories about the attack are already spreading on message boards and social media.

    This post was last updated at 2:56 pm EDT and will be updated throughout May 18.

    4chan: The shooter was “identified as Ant-awan Al-Kumiyya” and has “ties” to ISIS.

    4chan: “The suspect is a White male named Paulo Deninez.”

    The person who started the thread later posted a “correction” that the name they meant to post was “Paul Denino”:

    4chan: The shooting was designed to distract from Department of Justice inspector general report about investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.

    Other posts in another thread made the same allegation.

    4chan: The government takes advantage of real shootings to desensitize people before taking their rights.

    4chan: The shooting might have been designed to “shift the narrative back to gun control” and/or distract from Israel killing Gazans.

    4chan: “Jewish false flag to distract from whatever is dropping tonight.”

    8chan: The shooting might have been a false flag.

    Reddit’s r/The_Donald: The shooting might have been a false flag.

    Twitter user: A fake account for “Laguna Beach Antifa” spread a false claim that the poster’s father is a janitor at Santa Fe High School who was shot. Another fake “Laguna Beach Antifa” account had previously pushed this same image.

    8chan: The shooting “was orchestrated to distract from the clearly LIBERAL EMBARRASSMENT that was the Trump golf club shooting?”

    Reddit’s r/Conspiracy: “Student tells CNN anchor there was a fire ‘drill’ at Sante Fe, TX school minutes before shots rang out.”

    Twitter user: A since-removed tweet falsely identified “neo-nazi ring leader Samuel Hyde” as the shooter.

    Laura Loomer: Santa Fe High School had a “mass casualty drill” before the shooting. “I’m sorry, but I can’t help but notice these ‘coincidences.’”

    Twitter user and 4chan: “Deep state” is “commission[ing]” the shooter.”

    Twitter user: The school had an "active shooter drill" just over a week ago. What a (((coincidence))).”

    Twitter user: The shooting was a planned distraction from news about Democrats.

    Twitter user: The shooting could be part of a New York Times cover-up of the release of the Justice Department inspector general report release.

    4chan: The shooter was bullied by teachers, and media are covering it up.

    Twitter users: Survivor Paige Curry is a crisis actor.

    Facebook: A now-removed fake profile was created of the alleged shooter as a Clinton and antifa supporter.

    Mike Cernovich: The alleged shooter may be antifa because he wore the same outfit "which you see at every ANTIFA riot."

    Research contributed by Alex Kaplan, Cristina López G., Natalie Martinez, Grace Bennett, Dina Radtke, and Bobby Lewis. Also, h/t to Buzzfeed reporter Jane Lytvynenko for some of these.

  • A Facebook-verified Standing Rock page that has posted fake news is run out of Eastern Europe

    Another verified page has exhibited suspicious behavior as well, including pushing fake news

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    UPDATE: Since the publication of this article, almost all of the Facebook pages Media Matters identified here have been taken down. Two groups -- Native Americans and Native Americans Group -- are still operational. Native Americans, however, has been renamed I Love USA, and most of the accounts connected to Eastern Europe that ran both groups are no longer listed as administrators or moderators. Additionally, the day before this article was published, Amir Asani, who had been co-running Native Americans, offered the Standing Rock Indian Resevation (sic) page for sale in an Albanian group and listed his location as Kumanovo, Macedonia. Asani has previously tried to auction that page and another page in the network in that group.

    ORIGINAL POST:

    Facebook has verified multiple pages claiming to be related to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation that have posted fake stories. At least one of the pages is connected to Eastern Europe and earned itself and Facebook money through the platform’s Instant Articles feature.

    In late 2016, protesters gathered at Standing Rock Indian Reservation to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, which the Standing Rock Sioux tribe said would harm its drinking water. To exploit the protests, fake Native American Facebook pages run from Kosovo and Vietnam tricked people into clicking on clickbait and buying counterfeit pipeline protest clothing. Since then, this network of fake tribal pages has posted fake news to get engagement from Americans.

    A Media Matters review has found at least two currently active pages that say they represent the Standing Rock reservation but have activity that indicates their authenticity is suspect. Each has a grey check mark, indicating that Facebook has deemed it to be an “authentic Page for this business or organization.”

    One page, called Standing Rock Indian Resevation (sic), claims it is a “Religious center in Fort Yates, North Dakota” and has more than 83,000 followers. Although the page has published content related to Standing Rock, it has also posted numerous clickbait pieces and conspiracy theories that have nothing to do with Standing Rock. The page has also posted images and requests meant to boost its profile, such as a false claim about Facebook's CEO that said commenting “BFF” would reveal the user's security status.

    An account named Barry Anderson Vuchkovska runs the page. Vuchkovska, whose timeline features Eastern European activity, also runs the pages Dangerous Weapons, Native Americans, Best in the World, Native Americans Today, and Enigma Spot, which have nearly 700,000 followers combined (most of them following the first two). Dangerous Weapons mainly posts pictures of guns, some of which have been tagged in Macedonia. The pages Native Americans, Native Americans Today, and Best in the World have featured similar background photos as the pages in the Kosovo Native American Facebook network and/or similar language that explains how to change settings to move up the pages in a user’s news feed, suggesting that these pages are all part of that network. The Native Americans and Native Americans Today pages have also posted clickbait from a site called factiven.com, some of which is false. Additionally, Vuchkovska co-runs the Facebook groups Native Americans and Native Americans Group either directly or via the Standing Rock Indian Resevation (sic) page, alongside accounts including Imer Dalipi, who has signaled he’s from Macedonia, and Bujar Salii, who also claims to be from Macedonia. Vuchkovska has also spammed the Native Americans group with clickbait, some of it false.

    The Standing Rock Indian Resevation (sic) page has also linked to plagiarized clickbait using Facebook’s Instant Articles feature, a mobile web format that allows articles to load on Facebook on smartphones. That means Facebook and this network are making money via ads on articles that violate its Instant Article policy on intellectual property. Instant Articles have already been used by some for fake news stories, including within the fake Native American Facebook page network. The Instant Article posts also link back to the Enigma Spot Facebook page.

    The other verified page, which has the same name but spells “reservation” correctly, claims to be a “Public & government service in Cannon Ball, North Dakota” and has more than 17,100 followers. Although the page has posted content relating to Standing Rock and Native Americans, in October the page also posted fake stories such as one claiming that Hollywood celebrities called for a strike until President Donald Trump resigns, another saying that actress Ashley Judd said women have more rights in the Middle East than in the U.S., and a third claiming that actor Robert Redford called Trump “the true leader of America.” The page has also posted clickbait, some of it conservative, that have nothing to do with Standing Rock. The page later claimed that it had been hacked, but since then it has posted the fake Hollywood strike story again and propaganda from a page run by Russia’s Internet Research Agency.

    Facebook continues to struggle at monitoring pages that pretend to represent major organizations and movements, with bad actors using them for scams and to get clicks for money. That Facebook would verify some of these pages suggests the platform has more work to do in accurately authenticating its users.

    Research contributed by Facebook watchdog Sarah Thompson was instrumental to this post.

  • As the midterms approach and foreign interference looms, just how screwed is America?

    What reporters and voters need to keep an eye on leading up to November

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN

    Midterm elections are less than 200 days away. We know that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election and weaponized our favorite social media platforms -- Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, Reddit, and even Pinterest -- against us. We know that Russians hacked the Democratic National Committee and released some of its emails via WikiLeaks. We know that despite sanctions from the U.S., Russian trolls continue this activity and will continue their influence operations at least through the 2018 elections.

    America isn’t the only country facing this problem. Earlier this year, Facebook admitted that social media can be bad for democracy. Social media manipulation is a global problem, and Russian trolls aren’t the only hostile actors looking to weaponize the internet to disrupt democracies. Cambridge Analytica openly bragged to potential clients about its ability to disrupt elections, touting online targeting in a laundry list of offerings that included, according to U.K.’s Channel 4 News, “bribes, ex-spies, fake IDs and sex workers.”

    The tech platforms have all promised to do better in 2018. Facebook and Google have both recently announced changes in their ad programs that theoretically will make it more difficult for hostile actors to game their systems. Reddit and Tumblr banned all known Russian trolls on their platform and also listed their handles so that users who had interacted with them online could better understand their own exposure. Nearly two years after the presidential election, the tech platforms finally seem to be taking this problem seriously and cooperating with Congress and the special counsel’s office.

    But we still have a lot more questions than answers. There’s no public map of Russian activity online available to voters. We don’t know what, if anything, our government is doing to protect us from social media manipulation, and while it seems obvious that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, we don’t have a complete picture of what happened or what other political entities might have been involved. We don’t know if tech companies are collaborating to fight back against social media’s weaponization or if they’re focused only on their platforms’ individual issues. This is unsettling.

    Even more unsettling is that campaign staff on both sides of the aisle seem unaware of or unconcerned about foreign meddling in this year’s midterm elections. A survey of campaign staffers from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy found that “two-thirds (65%) reported they are not ‘very concerned’ or ‘not concerned at all’ about foreign threats to campaign cybersecurity.”

    For those observing this issue, whether from the perspective of a voter, campaign staffer, or political reporter, there are some reports/proceedings on the horizon which should give more insight into Russian interference in 2016 elections and hopefully will provide some more answers. Keep an eye out for these:

    • First, House Democrats plan to release all 3,000 Russian-linked Facebook ads as soon as this week. The cache will show “images of the ads, which groups the ads targeted, how much they cost and how many Facebook users viewed them.” Finally having access to targeting data should give us insight into how Russian trolls segmented the population and might also provide clues as to where they got the data to do so.

    • Second, Senate intelligence committee Chairman Richard Burr said in February that he was hopeful the committee would be able to make public parts of its report on Russian influence in 2016 before the 2018 primaries begin. He promised that there would be another open hearing on election security. Assuming that the Senate intelligence committee is still on track, we should see that report soon.

    • Finally, we could see a report or further indictments from special counsel Robert Mueller before the midterm elections. Conventional wisdom suggests that Mueller will either wrap up his investigation shortly or go dark until after the midterms. Should the former happen, the public will likely get more information about the 13 Russians indicted for interference in the 2016 U.S. elections as well as answers about the Trump campaign’s working relationship with Russian operatives.

    What we don’t know about Russian interference is terrifying. Information warfare, including via weaponized social media and cyberattacks, is a threat to democracy both in America and abroad. Leading up to the U.S. midterms, it’s up to news media and pro-democracy activists to sound the alarm. American voters need to understand what happened to them in 2016 and what’s at stake for our democracy this November.

  • Foreign actors are using Google's Blogger platform to spread fake news

    And it’s being monetized with AdSense

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN

    UPDATE: As of May 14, all of the sites connected to the Philippines mentioned in this report have been taken down except for International news and NewsFeed USA.

    ORIGINAL POST:

    At least 15 websites that traffic in fake news and that seem to have connections to the Philippines are using Google’s Blogger service to host their sites. And many of the false stories they publish feature advertisements from AdSense, Google’s advertising network.

    Google has come under fire since the 2016 election for becoming a platform ripe with misinformation and hate-based rhetoric through its search engine and its video streaming platform YouTube. Fake news sites and other bad actors have also relied on AdSense to monetize the spread of lies. 

    But those are not the only ways bad actors have relied on Google.

    Media Matters has identified at least 15 sites with foreign ties that use Google’s publishing platform Blogger to publish fake news and hyperpartisan content. Registration information for most of the sites has been masked, but links to the sites have been spammed into Facebook groups by accounts that are either from the Philippines (many of the accounts say they are located in the Filipino cities of Quezon City or Dasmariñas) or have activity on their pages suggesting they are from the Philippines (such as posting in languages native to the Philippines). Some of the sites have also published fake news that targets minorities, even though Blogger’s content policy prohibits hate speech. The sites are:

    These sites publish fake news

    Here are some of the fake news pieces the sites have published:


                        Fake news shared in a Facebook group by a Filipino account

    In the past month, Facebook-designated fact-checkers PolitiFact and FactCheck.org have called out some of these sites for publishing fake news.

    Fake news targeting minorities

    Some of these sites have published fake news that targets minorities, even though Blogger’s content policy explicitly bars hate speech, specifically “content that promotes or condones violence against individuals or groups based on race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, nationality, veteran status, or sexual orientation/gender identity, or whose primary purpose is inciting hatred on the basis of these core characteristics.” And some of these sites have been monetized by Google AdSense, whose content policy also bars its ads from being placed on pages promoting hate speech -- and from pages “enticing users to engage with content under false or unclear pretenses.” (Blogger promotes Google AdSense on its main page.)

    Here are some of the fake news pieces these sites have published that target minorities:

    These are yet more examples of foreign actors exploiting the tech giants’ services -- along with the political and social biases of Americans -- to spread false or hyperpartisan content for money.

  • Facebook caves to debunked claims of right-wing censorship

    Facebook will get advice about supposed bias from a Republican lobbyist who in 2008 alleged a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda

    Blog ››› ››› JOHN WHITEHOUSE


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Axios reported on May 2 that Facebook will bring on lobbyist and former Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl to advise the company regarding claims of conservative bias on its platform -- even though the allegations have been repeatedly debunked using Facebook’s own data. As Thinkprogress noted, the effort will not include any liberals. Additionally, Facebook executives will be receiving advice from the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation on the supposed anti-conservative bias, according to the Axios report

    Conservatives have been complaining about Facebook censoring them for years, and Facebook, in turn, gave in to that pressure in ways that immediately made things worse.

    In May 2016, a flimsy report claimed that Facebook employees had “blacklisted” conservative outlets and stories from the platform’s Trending Topics news section. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg quickly met with conservatives, including a representative from Donald Trump's campaign, to promise that Facebook would be good to them. A subsequent internal investigation revealed “no evidence of systematic political bias” in the trending topics, but Facebook soon gave in to right-wing pressure anyway. The company fired the “news curators” of the section, instead opting to use an algorithm that routinely promoted fabricated stories from bogus sources.

    After that change in 2016, fake news increasingly flooded the site. It was only after the 2016 election that Zuckerberg committed to doing something about the problem. One of the first solutions the company implemented was to add fact checks to disputed stories. When conservatives started wrongly complaining that fact-checkers were liberal, Facebook added right-wing publication The Weekly Standard -- which has a long history of pushing debunked lies -- as a fact-checker. (Facebook has since moved away from this fact-check feature as originally conceived.)

    The conservative complaints against Facebook have grown into a fever pitch since Facebook tweaked its news feed algorithm again in January 2018. Pro-Trump personalities Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, who go by the moniker Diamond and Silk, repeatedly appeared on Fox News in April to complain about Facebook’s supposed censorship of their page and said the company never reached out to them to address their concern.

    Zuckerberg testified before Congress in April, and right-wing sites were thrilled when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) confronted him about this alleged bias against conservatives -- and downright giddy when Zuckerberg said in response that Silicon Valley is an “extremely left-leaning” place. House Republicans repeatedly asked Zuckerberg about supposed censorship of Diamond and Silk instead of asking pressing questions about Facebook’s monopolistic role in global information and violence.

    Shortly after Zuckerberg’s testimony, the entire narrative about Diamond and Silk was debunked. Judd Legum reviewed data from CrowdTangle showing that Diamond and Silk were never suppressed on Facebook and that the pair “get more video views on Facebook than Rachel Maddow, even though Maddow’s show has a much larger page and is the most popular cable news program in the country.” Erick Erickson and Andrew Kirell revealed emails from Facebook showing that contrary to Diamond and Silk’s public allegations, Facebook had tried to reach out to them regarding monetization of their videos.

    None of this made any difference in the right-wing bubble. The day after their claims were debunked, the pair appeared on Fox News and restated their claims. While hosting the duo, host Neil Cavuto gave no impression that the claims had been debunked, and indeed he once even implied their page had been taken down by Facebook, which was never the case nor was it even alleged.

    Conservatives also rallied around Diamond and Silk, ignoring the fact that their claims have been proved untrue. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) invited the pair to testify during an April 26 congressional hearing where they made a number of demonstrably false claims while under oath. They have since continued to appear on Fox News and are scheduled to appear at a “leadership forum” during the NRA annual meeting this week.

    And right-wing claims of suppression are only growing. During a conversation with Facebook’s head of global policy management, Monika Bickert, that was hosted by the Heritage Foundation, a representative from hyperpartisan and anti-Muslim conglomerate Liftable Media asked about supposed suppression of its site Western Journalism under the new algorithm. Bickert was noncommittal, but more and more conservatives are pressing Facebook for mass distribution. Allen West, Tomi Lahren, Dan Bongino, and others have also complained on Fox News in recent days about Facebook censoring conservatives.

    None of these accusations are reflected in the data. A 2017 Newswhip report found that conservative publishers receive 2.5 times the engagement that liberal sites got. (The finding mirrors internal data that Media Matters has collected.) Newswhip data for February and March 2018 show that a number of right-wing sites are among the biggest publishers on Facebook. Newswhip also noted that the top reporters on Facebook were almost all right-wing media figures.

    This right-wing complaining should sound familiar. It’s the same model that conservatives have used to take on the media for decades.

    Media Matters senior fellow Matt Gertz has previously examined the origins of right-wing animus toward the media:

    Those attacks first boiled over at the Republican National Convention in 1964, which followed weeks of vitriolic criticism against the press by Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) and his supporters. Goldwater had been widely castigated by columnists and commentators for his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, generating a backlash from activists who believed (quite accurately) that reporters had taken sides against segregation over the previous decade.

    As conservatives triumphed over the moderates who had controlled the party for decades and installed the Arizona senator as the party’s nominee, activists raged at and even assaulted the purportedly liberal press. Former President Dwight Eisenhower’s exhortation from the podium to “scorn the divisive efforts of those outside our family, including sensation-seeking columnists and commentators” drew wild applause and jeers from the crowd.

    This anti-press animus would enter the White House with Richard Nixon’s election in 1968.

    The line from the Nixon administration to modern right-wing media goes directly through Roger Ailes. Ailes produced Rush Limbaugh’s short-lived television show and later co-founded Fox News, before being given $40 million to leave following an investigation into reported sexual misconduct. The right-wing architecture that Ailes constructed and inspired was built on and dominated by attacks on the media. This culminated in Trump’s candidacy for president. Trump has constantly railed against the media, both on the campaign trail and in the White House, in unprecedented ways.

    This pressure campaign by conservatives against the media has worked. The media take conservative criticism far more seriously than they do left-wing criticism. This is reflected in the data as well: Conservatives are far more likely to be invited onto the most prominent political talk shows. The media ignore topics like climate change until Trump brings it up. Speaking truth to conservatives just makes the media think that conservatives are being bullied, even if the conservatives in question are some of the most powerful people in the world.

    Charlie Brown kept falling for Lucy’s football routine, and the media keep falling for right-wing complaints about the fake news media. We know appeasement will not work because it never has. In fact, many of the criticisms are not even made in good faith. They’re merely a strategy to assume permanent power for the far right.

    And so now, by hiring Kyl, Facebook is building its own apparatus to appease conservatives. Kyl has been working at Washington lobbying firm Covington and Burling, where one of his clients is a former member of Facebook’s board, Donald E. Graham. (Graham, the former publisher of The Washington Post, in March published an op-ed in the paper decrying attempts to regulate Facebook, worrying about potential censorship of newspapers.)

    It’s unclear what advice from Kyl will look like. Kyl has a track record of bigotry toward Muslims and once even gave an award to an anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist. Gizmodo has also noted that Kyl spread lies about Planned Parenthood while in the Senate. Kyl’s comments about the 2010 New START treaty between Russia and the U.S. to reduce nuclear arms were also “thoroughly debunked.” In 2008, Kyl even wrote a letter to The Washington Post asserting a connection between former Iraq President Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. This myth, which had long been debunked, was also the subject of the book The Connection: How al Qaeda’s Collaboration With Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America by Weekly Standard editor Stephen F. Hayes.

    But whatever Kyl’s advice is, it won’t work. The complaints are the point. The goal is to discredit any potential news source that undermines the right-wing narrative. If Facebook gives in to this pressure and further helps out right-wing outlets, that’s a win. If Facebook does not give in, these conservatives will threaten to push right-wing audiences to other platforms, and they'll use that threat to push for more concessions from Facebook. Nothing will ever stop the complaints. Mainstream media figures have refused to learn that lesson, but it’s not too late for Facebook.

    As America worries about whether the post-truth era it has found itself in can be reversed, Facebook should stop playing games with liars.

  • Facebook agrees to a much-needed civil rights audit in the worst possible way

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN

    After months of advocacy from civil rights groups, this morning Facebook announced that it will conduct a civil Rights audit of its platform. Via Axios:

    The civil rights audit will be guided by Laura Murphy, a national civil liberties and civil rights leader. Murphy will take feedback from civil rights groups, like The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and advise Facebook on the best path forward.

    Calls for a civil rights audit, led by Muslim Advocates and Color of Change, along with the Center for Media Justice, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, have been ongoing. As the Color of Change petition notes, “Through their data malpractice, opaque interactions with law enforcement, erasure of Black activist voices, and inability and unwillingness to tackle the rise of white supremacist organizing and hate speech on the platform, Facebook's failures have put our communities at risk.”

    The civil rights audit is a win. After months of pressure, Facebook has agreed to examine how its platform has been weaponized to spread hate and harm underrepresented communities and people of color. If Facebook takes the audit seriously and implements its recommendations, the platform could change for the better, making Facebook a safer space and a creating better overall user experience for all communities.

    But alongside this welcome announcement from Facebook came a not-so-welcome one. Also from Axios:

    To address allegations of bias, Facebook is bringing in two outside advisors — one to conduct a legal audit of its impact on underrepresented communities and communities of color, and another to advise the company on potential bias against conservative voices.

    ...

    The conservative bias advising partnership will be led by former Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, along with his team at Covington and Burling, a Washington law firm.

    The civil rights audit isn’t partisan. Hate speech, safety, and privacy aren’t political issues, but moral issues. Yet by announcing the audit at the same time as a “conservative bias advisory partnership” (presumably to address a claim that has already been debunked), Facebook is conflating the two. It suggests that the audit is meant to address criticism from the political left, not the problems underrepresented communities face on the platform every single day.

    Muslim Advocates addresses this concern in its response:

    We are concerned, however, about the pairing of this announcement with another that Facebook will be bringing on advisors responsible for determining bias against conservatives. We strongly reject the message this sends regarding the moral equivalency of hate group activities and conservative viewpoints. Despite this concern, we hope this first step is a sign that Facebook will begin to take responsibility for the hate and bigotry that has flourished on its platform.

    Safety online isn’t partisan. Facebook’s users should have the expectation that their civil rights won’t be violated while using the platform. Pairing the civil rights audit with a partisan panel on supposed conservative bias on the platform suggests that Facebook doesn’t take civil rights seriously, instead viewing it as a partisan complaint that must be appeased.

    This is not acceptable. Facebook must fully commit to ensuring its users are safe online and that their rights aren’t violated. Today’s announcement was a big misstep. It creates the impression that Facebook sees the audit as a political issue and not a moral one. The ball is in Facebook’s court to correct this.

  • Popular conservative meme pages on Facebook affiliate themselves with an extremist militia movement

    Blog ››› ››› NATALIE MARTINEZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    The fake news website America’s Freedom Fighters has identified itself as part of the extremist militia movement The Three Percenters (also referred to as the Three Percent movement and III%), which has been implicated in multiple cases of race-based violence. Some pages that are part of America’s Freedom Fighters’ popular Facebook network bear the name or the logo of the militia movement in their name or profile pictures. 

    The Three Percenters is a loosely organized anti-government “patriot group” whose name refers to the disputed idea that 3 percent of American colonists fought against the British during the Revolutionary War. Although the largest group claims it is “NOT a militia” and “NOT anti-government,” the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified the Three Percenters as anti-government extremists, and outlets including Politico, Vice, and Reveal have identified local groups affiliated with the movement as militias. In a profile of Three Percenter cells, Reveal wrote that the movement has “long been active around the fringes of the white supremacist ecosystem.”

    In its principles, The Three Percenters state that they are not “the aggressor” and have a “don’t fire unless fired upon” policy. However, local level groups and militiamen affiliated with the Three Percenters movement have been implicated in multiple instances of domestic terrorism and racist violence over the past few years. Members of the Three Percenters, along with other militia groups like the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia and the Oath Keepers, provided security for the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA, in August 2017. The Three Percent United Patriots has operated as a border militia that “hunt[ed] Mexicans” while profiling and targeting Latinos passing through the U.S.-Mexico border. A member of the Three Percenters militia was arrested before attempting to detonate a bomb outside of a bank in Oklahoma City. And Three Percenters from Idaho and Oregon joined Ammon and Cliven Bundy’s armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016.

    Muslims and Muslim community spaces are frequent targets of state and local level Three Percenter groups. One of three arrested suspects in the bombing of a Minnesota mosque in March was identified as the head of the group White Rabbit Three Percent Illinois Patriot Freedom Fighters Militia. In 2016, the North Dakota Security Force III% published a since-removed video of a model of a mosque being shot at and blown up. Multiple Three Percenter groups have organized armed protests targeting mosques in Georgia, Texas, and Kansas (where the group goes by both Kansas Security Force and Kansas Three Percent Security Force).

    America’s Freedom Fighters has promoted the Three Percenters movement on its website and Facebook accounts. The fake news site reprinted the Three Percenters’ oath from their bylaws in an article titled “We Are The Three Percent!” (These are also the same bylaws that the radical anti-government militia group the Oath Keepers has adopted.) In this article, America’s Freedom Fighters also promoted its Facebook pages and a large Facebook group for Three Percenters. In another article, America’s Freedom Fighters praised The Three Percenters for “securing the U.S.-Mexico border” after the militia threatened to kill immigrants as they approached the border. America’s Freedom Fighters’ now-inactive online store also used to feature merchandise with the Three Percenters’ logo.

    Some Facebook pages affiliated with America’s Freedom Fighters reference The Three Percenters in their names and profile pictures. These pages include: Dean James III%, Nation in Distress, USA in Distress, and The voice of the people. According to data from Crowdtangle, the most popular of these pages -- Nation in Distress -- earns an average of over 412,000 interactions a day. Dean James III% and The voice of the people earn over 72,000 and 77,000 daily interactions, respectively. 

    This article has been updated for clarity.

  • The main takeaways from the House's hearing with Diamond and Silk

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN

    The House Judiciary Committee on April 26 held a hearing on debunked claims that Facebook censors conservative content. It included testimony from right-wing YouTubers Diamond and Silk about such supposed censorship but ignored actual issues of misinformation and privacy problems facing the social media giant.

    Here are some of the most important takeaways from the hearing, titled “Filtering Practices of Social Media Platforms”:

    1. The hearing was based on a false premise.

    Over the past month, Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, right-wing YouTubers popularly known as Diamond and Silk who have recently become frequent guests on Fox News, have falsely claimed that Facebook deliberately kept their content from reaching their audiences and did not contact them to solve the problem. The YouTubers’ claims were quickly debunked, but Fox and others in right-wing media helped spread the false accusations, presenting them as a proof of Facebook’s alleged anti-conservative political bias. In fact, data from NewsWhip shows that conservatives weren’t systematically targeted on the platform and that conservative content had been some of the Facebook’s most viral in 2017.

    2) Even though they were under oath, Diamond and Silk made numerous false claims.

    During the hearing, Diamond and Silk continued to push the idea that Facebook was targeting them. The duo made numerous false claims about Facebook, saying that they were blocked on the platform and that Facebook “censored” them for six months. The pair also wrongly claimed that Facebook is not a private company because it went public on the stock market in 2012. Most notably, the duo claimed that they were never paid by President Donald Trump’s campaign, even though Federal Election Commission records show otherwise. The pair suggested that the FEC report was “fake news.”

    3) The false premise of the hearing was called out.

    Multiple Democratic members of the committee noted the false premise of the hearing. Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT), for instance, said its purpose was “to promote a false narrative,” and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) exclaimed, “This is a stupid and ridiculous hearing.”

    Perhaps even more notably, New York Law School professor Ari Waldman testified that Facebook has flagged content from both sides of the political spectrum and that Facebook’s change to the news feed to prioritize content from friends and family rather than “media or business pages” had nothing to do with ideology, despite claims that it played a role in the supposed conservative censorship. According to Waldman, “lots of content gets filtered out” because of this algorithm change, “but no more so from the right than from the left.”

    4) Republican House members relied on right-wing media talking points to attack social media companies.

    Despite Waldman’s testimony -- and multiple media reports debunking the false claim of “conservative censorship” on social media platforms -- Republican House members repeatedly pushed the notion of such censorship, relying on talking points from right-wing media figures to support their claims. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) said in his opening statement that conservatives were being “shadow banned,” a term far-right media figures have previously used. Smith also said that “Google’s new fact-checking feature appears to target conservative websites,” a claim also pushed by right-wing media and which was based on error on Google’s part rather than any malicious intent.

    Rep. Steve King (R-IA) pushed censorship claims from Jim Hoft of the far-right and frequently egregiously inaccurate blog The Gateway Pundit and said he hoped Hoft would testify before Congress one day. (The following day, King suggested he had relied directly on Hoft’s claims when making his conservative censorship statement.) Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) also directly cited the editor of hyperpartisan site The Western Journal to claim Facebook’s algorithms censor conservatives. The Judiciary Committee’s Facebook account even shared a post from Fox News host Sean Hannity hyping the hearing. None of the House Republicans mentioned the NewsWhip report rebutting the hearing’s premise.

    5) The representatives leading the hearing mostly ignored actual problems faced by social media companies.

    The committee only briefly examined legitimate issues facing social media platforms, such as their use to spread conspiracy theories and hoaxes. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) discussed the obligations of social media platforms in dealing with these problems, specifically mentioning posts that targeted the Parkland, FL, mass shooting survivors.

    But committee members almost completely ignored other relevant issues, such as the data privacy scandal involving Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s role in helping incite violence in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, condemned House Republicans the day after the hearing for ignoring the issue of data privacy in favor of Diamond and Silk’s claims.

  • Facebook traffic for two hoax and hyperpartisan sites is down -- but there’s still work to do

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Fake news sites YourNewsWire and Conservative Daily Post, which have trafficked in hoaxes and hyperpartisan clickbait articles, have seen some of their Facebook traffic fall recently, according to a new report from the social media analytics company NewsWhip. However, these sites still have relatively high engagement, suggesting Facebook has more work to do.

    The April 24 report suggested that Facebook’s recent changes, such as pushing up “meaningful” content in people's news feeds, may have had some impact on at least two fake news sites. NewsWhip also noted that the average engagement of YourNewsWire’s two Facebook pages dropped during the first months of 2018, even though the page gained followers.

    Yet the site still has high Facebook traffic overall, including, as the report noted, some of “the most viral stories of the year.”

    Some of YourNewsWire’s recent viral stories include one from January that claimed a Centers For Disease Control (CDC) doctor said the flu shot was killing people (currently at 867,000 Facebook engagements). Another story alleged the CDC doctor was a then-missing Georgia CDC official (currently at 218,500 Facebook engagements). And yet another fake story claimed that an NFL lawyer was murdered (currently at 39,200 Facebook engagements). The site within the past few days has also spread the false claim that California plans to ban sales of the Bible; it’s currently YourNewsWire's third most viral story so far this year, with more than 535,000 Facebook engagements.

    Conservative Daily Post’s average Facebook engagements have declined since late 2017.

    Some of the site’s recent posts have still gone viral, including a false claim that Rhode Island’s governor ordered the confiscation of guns from people deemed dangerous. The story has received 53,700 Facebook engagements so far. A post alleging that Parkland, FL, school shooting survivor David Hogg was a “crisis actor” has also received 38,000 Facebook engagements.

    In fact, the site’s total number of monthly Facebook engagements has not changed much.

    Fake news from other sites has also still gone viral. Examples include a hoax prematurely claiming former first lady Barbara Bush had died and a hoax about singer Celine Dion that multiple sites published. Conspiracy theories, such as those targeting the Parkland survivors, have also found a home on Facebook quickly. And until last month, Facebook did not allow fact checks of photos and video, letting hoaxes in that format go viral on the platform.

    Facebook also plans to make group activity on its platform more prominent in users’ news feeds. Facebook groups have become a hotspot for foreign actors to spread misinformation, and some are setting up their own groups to push hoaxes to Americans.

    Fake news sites are still getting a significant amount of traffic, and when some stories gain traction, they can still go viral. Facebook has said it is moving “false news” lower down in users' news feeds, but clearly the platform still has a misinformation problem.

    Original Facebook engagement data cited in this post comes via social media analytics site BuzzSumo.

  • 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: