As survivors of a mass shooting speak out, social media platforms are inundated with lies. It even spread over into radio.
As survivors of a mass shooting speak out, social media platforms are inundated with lies. It even spread over into radio.
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.
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.
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:
Native Americans (@ProNativeAmericans)
Native Americans Proud (@NativeAmericansNAP)
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.
Facebook featured a fake news website as a news source on a Trending topic page about a news story. The website has a history of pushing fake news, including the Pizzagate conspiracy theory.
On February 1, one of Facebook’s Trending topic pages was about the resignation of Brenda Fitzgerald, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, following revelations that she had made financial investments in the tobacco industry. One of the news sources listed under the “Also reported by” section was an article from the website Before It’s News.
Before It’s News has a history of spreading fake news and misinformation. Its founder, Chris Kitze, told The Guardian in May 2017 that “he allows users to post any content” on the website “without fact-checking,” and said, regarding a false claim that photos had existed showing former President Barack Obama practicing Islam in the White House, “A lot of people think Obama is Muslim. That’s what it plays on. Is it real? I don’t know. The fact is a lot of people thought it was real or it reflects their sentiment.”
The website has featured stories pushing the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, falsely claiming that the Las Vegas, NV, mass shooter was “an undercover FBI agent,” promoting forged documents that originated on a fringe message board on 4chan targeting then-French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, pushing the conspiracy theory that the chemical attack by Syrian President Bashar Assad on his people was a “false flag,” claiming Obama “hacked” Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, falsely claiming that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had purposely allowed ISIS in Europe, and falsely claiming that an Alaska judge had called for Obama’s arrest.
Displaying a story from Before It’s News is the most recent example of a number of recurring problems with Facebook’s Trending topics section. The section recently featured Infowars host Alex Jones pushing the far-right conspiracy theory “The Storm” as a featured post, and the section has repeatedly displayed conspiracy theory website Zero Hedge as a news source. A Trending topic page about the January 31 collision between a train carrying Republican members of Congress and a garbage truck in Virginia featured multiple conspiracy theories in its “people are saying” section, which Facebook said it would prevent going forward. It’s clear that Facebook is still struggling to control the spread of misinformation on its platform.
Facebook prominently placed a post by Alex Jones pushing a 4chan conspiracy theory on its Trending topics page about a news story.
On January 30, one of Facebook’s Trending topics was the news of a vote by the House intelligence committee to release a memo written by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) that House Republicans claim shows the Justice Department and the FBI “misus[ed] their authority to obtain a secret surveillance order on a former Trump campaign associate.” On the topic page, one of the featured posts -- posts from Facebook users that have a dedicated section on the page -- was from Jones of the conspiracy theory website Infowars urging people to “Watch Live: The Storm Has Arrived - Learn The Secrets Of QAnon And More.”
“The Storm” and “QAnon” refer to a conspiracy theory that began on 4chan and 8chan message boards. A person known as “Q” who claims to be a “high-level government insider” has been writing posts, or “crumbs,” to “covertly inform the public about POTUS’s master plan to stage a countercoup against members of the deep state.” The scope of the conspiracy theory has now expanded to include all kinds of events, such as the fire at Trump Tower in early January, and has even been invoked to accuse model Chrissy Teigen and her husband, singer John Legend, of pedophilia. Infowars announced earlier this month that its chief Washington correspondent Jerome Corsi would be “playing a more central role” in following the conspiracy theory on 8chan. Jones later claimed that the Trump administration asked him to cover the conspiracy theory.
This is not the first time Jones’ posts have been featured on Facebook’s Trending topic pages (which are now based on geographic region instead of personalized algorithms). Jones has been featured on pages about Trump endorsing Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, Trump attacking MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai criticizing Twitter.
Because of Facebook's ongoing resistance to transparency, it is unclear how it selects which posts to prominently feature or how many users see these "featured posts." But by featuring Jones on its topic pages, Facebook is responsible for promoting a conspiracy theorist who pushed Pizzagate, claimed that the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre was a hoax, and regularly makes threats of violence.
One of these pages is verified by Facebook
UPDATE: Since the publication of this article, all of the Facebook pages identified by Media Matters have been taken down.
Multiple Facebook pages are pretending to represent Native Americans and are pushing fake news stories. These pages, which have at least 1.1 million followers combined, are apparently linked to multiple fake news websites based in Kosovo. And at least one of those pages has been verified by Facebook.
Since 2016, Facebook has been forced to reckon with foreign manipulation of its platform for both geo-political and monetary ends. While Russia and Macedonia are generally considered countries from where some of the largest quantity of fake news is generated, Kosovo is another major source. Media Matters identified at least eight Facebook pages that claim to represent Native Americans but have actually been used to push fake news stories from websites registered in Kosovo. Those pages include:
One of the Native American Apache pages has a grey check mark, which indicates that it is an “authentic Page for this business or organization.” The page lists itself as a community center in Syracuse, NY. The website NativeAmericanApache.com, which the page is connected to, has previously published fake stories claiming that a police officer who arrested former first daughter Malia Obama was found dead (she wasn’t arrested), that a Sikh New Jersey mayor (who the story incorrectly calls Muslim) banned the word “Christmas,” and that a pedophile priest had been crucified outside a church. These fake stories in turn were posted on the verified Apache page. While the website’s domain information appears to be blocked, there is evidence suggesting it and the other page with the name Native American Apache both originate from Kosovo.
The non-verified Native American Apache page, which has the same name and cover photo as the verified Native American Apache page, is connected to the website onlinenews24.info, which is registered to a man named Arber Maloku in Obiliq, Kosovo. The website features ads from Google AdSense and has published fake stories that have also been pushed on the Native Americans Proud and Native Americans Cherokee pages, sometimes at almost the exact same time.
Other Native American pages pushing fake news also have connections to Kosovo. The page Apache Native Americans has repeatedly posted links to a website called Native Love, which is also registered in Obiliq to a man named Ardi Alija. Native Love too has pushed likely fake news, and another Facebook page connected to that website, Pawnee Native Americans, has also pushed the likely fake news. Another Facebook page, Cherokee Native Americans, has posted fake stories from Native American Stuff, a website with the same Google Analytics ID as Native Love, according to analytic tool Trendolizer. It is also registered to an individual in Kosovo and has published multiple fake stories.
Cherokee Native Americans has also pushed stories, some of which are fake, from the website CherokeeNative.us, which is also registered to Alija of Obiliq, who is the owner of Native Love. Another of Alija’s websites, NativesApache.us, has also published fake news that has been pushed by another Apache Native Americans page.
Additionally, at least a few of these pages urge users to change their settings so their pages top the news feeds of users. The pages have updated their cover photos with the message “Don’t Miss A Single Post Of Our Page” and instructions on how to change users settings so the pages appear at the top of users’ news feed.
In December 2016, BuzzFeed reported that fake Native American pages were exploiting the Standing Rock protests to sell copied merchandise and drive traffic to their websites. Though it is possible that some of these same Facebook pages were involved in those efforts, they now appear to have gotten in the fake news arena. Facebook’s verification badge on one of those pages lends legitimacy to the fake news spread through the page and shows that the social media platform, despite some recent moves, still has a ways to go toward fixing its misinformation problem.
A year ago today, President Donald Trump signed the first iteration of the Muslim ban, restricting travel to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries. Since then, the executive order, which was a core Trump campaign promise, has faced powerful legal challenges, implementation roadblocks and forced revisions -- yet, parts of it still remain intact. Just as important, the ban has become one of the clearest windows into the challenges and harms the Muslim community faces in the era of Trump.
With more news coverage being devoted to American Muslims’ diverse experiences with Trump in the White House, it is important for journalists and media outlets to avoid aiding and abetting anti-Muslim extremism in the year ahead. Here are five do’s and don’ts for media outlets to consider:
When Trump first called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” as a presidential candidate, he cited a flawed poll from the anti-Muslim Center for Security Policy (CSP) as justification for its implementation. The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated CSP a “hate group” for being a prominent “conspiracy-oriented mouthpiece for the growing anti-Muslim movement in the United States.” From the moment Trump enshrined this campaign promise into an executive order on January 27, 2017, white nationalists and neo-Nazis threw their unwavering support behind the discriminatory policy. And as it faced myriad legal challenges, Trump surrogates and anti-Muslim commentators attempted to sweep the ban’s original intent under the rug, framing it as nothing more than a national security precaution -- not a ban targeting Muslims. This year, the Supreme Court will decide the legality of the third iteration of Trump’s ban. It is imperative that media highlight its hateful origins and the extremism of the groups and activists mobilizing to keep it alive.
As anti-Muslim extremists have found more political legitimacy under this administration (even finding positions directly in the administration), major outlets -- especially Trump’s go-to network, Fox News -- have given them a platform to discuss Trump’s latest policies and rhetoric targeting Muslims. Too often, viewers and readers are not informed of these talkers’ backgrounds of extremism or hate group affiliations. Extremists exploit this lack of disclosure by casting themselves as legitimate talking heads and experts in the fields of national security and immigration. Some media outlets tend to reinforce this by couching their coverage and discussions about Muslims largely in the context of immigration and terrorism, which fuels Trump’s narrative -- and that of anti-Muslim groups -- that Islam is foreign and “other” and the Muslim community poses a threat to national security. As Media Matters and Southern Poverty Law Center note in this journalist’s guide to anti-Muslim extremists, reporters and media outlets are better off seeking other sources. But when they are covering these extremists’ activities, it is imperative that they alert their viewers and readers to their hate-based rhetoric and policy positions.
While anti-Muslim groups and personalities have enjoyed more media attention, some major outlets have largely failed to turn to Muslim leaders in real time to discuss Trump’s latest anti-Muslim policies and rhetoric. For example, immediately after the administration revealed the first two iterations of the ban, the vast majority of guests brought onto CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News’ prime-time shows to discuss the news were not Muslim. With that lack of inclusion, discussions of the ban on these networks largely revolved around the political and logistical consequences of the executive order -- not its real-life impact on the people affected. It is essential for reporters and outlets to turn to more leaders and experts in the community to inform their reporting.
Additionally, it is important for journalists and outlets to highlight the tangible and personal consequences of Trump’s anti-Muslim policies and rhetoric. As Muslim Advocates’ special counsel Madihha Ahussain noted on a recent press call with Media Matters and Southern Poverty Law Center, “Whether it has been Muslims walking on the street being called names and threatened with violence, Muslim women wearing headscarves being physically attacked, Muslim children in schools being bullied, or mosques around the country being vandalized, it seems and feels as though no aspect of the community has been spared from the rise in anti-Muslim sentiment and violence over the last year.” Sure enough, in 2016, there was a 20 percent increase in reported anti-Muslim hate crimes. In the first half of 2017, there was a "91 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes ... as compared to the same time period in 2016." And in 2017, there was an average of nine mosque attacks per month from January through August, according to a CNN analysis.
Anti-Muslim extremists count on the media to cover their talking points and activities as supposedly credible counterpoints to actual experts. In response to the Trump administration’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, too many media outlets have introduced false balance in their reporting and commentary, pitting pro-Trump extremists against Muslim advocates and experts. When Trump retweeted three anti-Muslim videos in November 2017 that were posted by an ultranationalist British leader, CNN, for example, covered these tweets with a series of “both sides” panel discussions stacked with pro-Trump commentators that justified and defended the tweets. By introducing two sides to this debate as valid, the network muddied the truth about these harmful videos and their impact on the Muslim community. “Both sides” reporting and commentary unnecessarily inflames anti-Muslim sentiment and increases its real-life impact.
Journalists and media outlets can’t ignore the rise and weaponization of anti-Muslim hate on major online platforms, including Facebook and Twitter. Too often, members of the “alt-right” harass Muslims online and fake news websites publish fake news stories demonizing Muslim communities that go viral here in the U.S. and throughout the world. Highlighting this reality and Muslim leaders’ front-line experiences with online hate gives viewers and readers a broader understanding of the challenges the community faces in the Trump era and encourages greater accountability from the online platforms that are exploited to amplify anti-Muslim hate.
Last night, The Washington Post revealed that Russian trolls “got tens of thousands of Americans to RSVP” to local political events on Facebook. We’ve known since last September that Russian trolls employed this tactic and often created dueling events at the same location and time, probably to incite violence or increase tension within local communities. But it is only now we’re learning the scale of that engagement. Per the Post, “Russian operatives used Facebook to publicize 129 phony event announcements during the 2016 presidential campaign, drawing the attention of nearly 340,000 users -- many of whom said they were planning to attend.”
The new information comes via the Senate intelligence committee, which has been investigating potential Russian collusion in the 2016 U.S. elections and pressuring tech companies, especially Facebook, Twitter, and Google, to disclose more of what they know about just how much propaganda Americans saw on their platforms. Both Twitter and Facebook have agreed to let users know if they were exposed, but given that we’re still learning more about the scale of the operation, I’m skeptical that anyone knows how many Americans were exposed to Russian propaganda or how often. (If you’d like to check for yourself, I helped create a site that allows anyone to check the likelihood of them being exposed on Facebook.)
By now most Americans accept that Russian propaganda appeared on their social media feeds in 2016. What concerns me is whether or not they believe that they themselves were susceptible to it. The fact that nearly 340,000 people RSVP’d to events created by Russian trolls -- that they moved up the ladder of engagement from consuming content to RSVPing to an event -- should make us all reconsider our own vulnerability, especially when you consider that many of these events were created to sow discord. Russia’s goal is to destabilize U.S. democracy. Stoking racial, cultural, and political tensions in local communities across the U.S. via creating events on Facebook is a cheap and effective way for Russian trolls to do this.
Russia’s use of social media to disseminate propaganda and stoke political tension is an ongoing problem. Last fall, Sens. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Mark Warner (D-VA), leaders of the Senate intelligence committee, issued a bipartisan warning that Russian trolls would continue their actions into the 2018 midterm elections and 2020 presidential elections to sow chaos. A ThinkProgress article on the now-defunct website BlackMattersUS.com illustrates how sophisticated propaganda operations can use content, online campaigns, offline events, and relationships with local activists to develop trust and credibility online. And as the successful dueling event demonstrate, all Americans, no matter what their political persuasion, are susceptible to these influence operations.
As Recode Executive Editor Kara Swisher pointed out on MSNBC today, we’re in an “ongoing war.” There’s no easy way to tell if the content we see on our social media feeds comes from Russian trolls or other hostile actors. There’s no media literacy course or easily available resource that can teach individuals how to identify propaganda. That’s why regulation that protects consumers such as stricter disclosure of political ads and safeguards against fraud is so vital to solving this problem. Especially as tech companies have proven reluctant to make any real changes beyond what public pressure demands of them.
Facebook has repeatedly featured the blog Zero Hedge -- which is known for trafficking in conspiracy theories and misinformation -- on its pages for news Trending topics. And at least once in the past week, the blog was the featured news source for a story on the Trending topics section of the news feed.
Facebook has recently claimed it is taking steps to combat the spread of fake news and misinformation on its platform, which proliferated around and after the 2016 election cycle. One of the key moments leading to Facebook’s misinformation problem was its decision in August 2016 to fire its “news curators” and put the Trending topics section under the control of an algorithm. The appearance of Zero Hedge as a news source in that section shows the algorithm is still struggling with curating credible news sources.
Zero Hedge was initially launched as a financial blog in 2009 and has repeatedly trafficked in the same ecosystem as The Gateway Pundit and Infowars. The latter two are conspiracy theory websites that, along with 4chan’s “politically incorrect” message board (commonly referred to as /pol/), are well known for spreading misinformation. Infowars and Gateway Pundit have become so notorious that even some conservatives have spoken out against them. Zero Hedge sometimes pushes conspiracy theories from Gateway Pundit, and Infowars has also often taken stories from Zero Hedge to push conspiracy theories. Infowars figures have also taken part in some of the same conspiracy theories as Zero Hedge.
Some of the false or dubious claims Zero Hedge has indulged in together with those websites include:
promoting forged documents from 4chan targeting then-French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron;
suggesting that the Clintons murdered a former Haitian government official;
claiming former Attorney General Loretta Lynch was “busted” for secretly using an alias to communicate with DOJ officials, despite her action being both precedented in government and already public knowledge.
Additionally, Zero Hedge has pushed multiple false stories from fake news website YourNewsWire and from fake news website True Pundit. It also pushed the conspiracy theory known as Pizzagate, and repeatedly promoted conspiracy theories surrounding slain Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich.
Despite Zero Hedge’s history of misinformation, between January 22 and January 26, different Facebook Trending topics pages featured it as a news source, including pages about:
On January 24, the Trending topics section on the main news feed featured the blog as its top story about the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD), a think tank that tracks Russian influence online. That Zero Hedge article criticized ASD for noting that Russian-linked accounts were pushing #ReleaseTheMemo, a campaign to get a memo written by House Republicans released that allegedly discredits the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s campaign.
This is not the first time that Facebook has prominently promoted the blog; in October, the social media platform’s crisis response page for the Las Vegas, NV, mass shooting featured a link to an article from a site called antimedia.org that was a reprint of a Zero Hedge post.
The risk of sites like Zero Hedge finding a platform in Facebook’s Trending news stories section became clear with Facebook’s announcement that it will rely on users to determine which sites are trustworthy: If users have been seeing a source trending often, they will be more likely to trust it when asked.
Facebook’s misinformation problem will continue to persist if it keeps giving a boost to outlets like Zero Hedge that regularly peddle misinformation. While the platform has made announcements in recent weeks that it claims will lessen the impact of misinformation on the news feed, the continuing problems of the Trending topics section promoting dubious websites as legitimate news sources are just as important. Nearly two years since it fired humans to curate its Trending topics, this section -- and the website as a whole -- continues to fail its users.
A network of fake news websites is promoting an effort to bypass new changes Facebook has recently implemented. The move comes as two major Facebook pages tied to the network and associated with fake news website Freedom Daily were taken down this weekend.
Facebook has announced changes over the past couple of weeks that will push content from peers and supposed “high quality” news outlets higher in users’ news feeds. In response, this network of fake news websites including Freedom Daily, Barracuda Brigade, Conservative Today, and Joe for America have been promoting a campaign to circumvent Facebook’s newest efforts to tackle fake news, calling Facebook’s reasons to do so “insidious” and “anti-freedom.” The campaign claims that social media companies are trying to “eliminate [their] voice in the political arena” and that Facebook has “tried various tactics to kill these conservative websites.” The campaign encourages readers to adjust their settings on their Facebook news feed so that the pages of these conservative websites appear first on their feed. This setting would mean these users will see posts from these fake news sites on their feed regardless of how Facebook’s algorithm would otherwise rank their content.
This campaign comes as the main Facebook page for Freedom Daily, a major fake news website, was recently taken down. The page had around 2.6 million followers and was verified until recently, when Facebook removed its verification check marks from the pages of multiple fake news websites. Freedom Daily’s content has often pushed racist conspiracy theories and promoted violence against Muslims. On its website, Freedom Daily’s Facebook icon now links to a new page, Freedom Daily News, which uses the same URL as the previous Facebook page and which began posting on Monday. The page seems to have been created around January 20, 2018.
Freedom Daily’s main Facebook page was part of a network of pro-Trump, conservative Facebook pages that exclusively linked to a set of websites affiliated with Freedom Daily, such as US Herald, Constitution.com and Silence is Consent. The websites involved in this Facebook effort also shared a Google Adsense ID until recently, and have been promoting each other’s websites on their respective Facebook pages.
In addition to Freedom Daily’s page, another one of those pages called President Donald Trump is Right, which had around two million followers, is also down. All other pages associated with Freedom Daily are still active, but they seem to be operating differently since Facebook has deleted other pages. Major pages with millions of followers, like Patriots United, Daily Vine and Silence is Consent, have largely stopped posting links from Freedom Daily’s site, instead sharing posts from smaller Facebook pages and the pages of individuals linking to Freedom Daily. Some other Facebook pages which frequently posted links to Freedom Daily -- Defense of Freedom, Conservative Tradition, Liberty Upheld, and Joe the Plumber’s Facebook page -- have stopped sharing links to Freedom Daily on their pages all together.
Mark Zuckerberg has been sharing a lot this month. First, he posted that his “personal challenge” for 2018 is to fix the glaring and obvious problems for which he’s taken so much heat. Last week, he announced that he had directed Facebook’s product teams to change their focus from “helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions.” Zuckerberg promised users that they’d see less content from “businesses, brands and media” and more content from “your friends, family and groups.” On Friday, Zuckerberg shared another major change: Facebook would improve the news that does get shared by crowdsourcing what news sources were and weren’t trustworthy via user surveys.
The first change, a return to “meaningful interaction,” is one I can get behind. I’m all for anything that discourages fake news sites from monetizing on Facebook. I’ve long suspected that part of why these sites took hold in the first place was a lack of meaningful content available on our feeds. Less sponsored content and more pictures and videos from family and friends will greatly improve my Facebook experience. I suspect I’m not the only one.
I’m also hopeful this change will move digital advocacy away from broadcasting and back to organizing. Given how Facebook groups have become such a crucial part of #TheResistance I’m glad to hear they’ll be emphasized. I want to see more groups like Pantsuit Nation and the many local Indivisible groups that have formed in the last year. (Media outlets fear not, Vox has also been building Facebook groups in addition to their pages.) Digital ads and acquisition shouldn’t be the only tools digital organizers use. Increased engagement should involve actually engaging folks rather than simply broadcasting to them.
The second change, user surveys to determine what news people trust, is maddening. If you were going to design a system that could be easily gamed, this is how you’d do it. “Freeping” online polls and surveys is a longstanding tactic of the far right online, going back nearly 20 years. It’s in their online DNA and they have groups of activists at the ready who live for this activity. Facebook isn’t handing authority over to their broader community but to an engaged group of users with an agenda. Even if the freeping wasn’t inevitable, it’s pretty well established that there’s already no common ground when it comes to what news sources people with different political viewpoints trust.
The crux of the problem is that Facebook desperately wants to be seen a neutral platform while Facebook’s users want them to keep inaccurate information off of Facebook. In his New Year’s post, Zuckerberg emphasized he believes technology “can be a decentralizing force that puts more power in people’s hands” while acknowledging that the reality might be the opposite. There’s a tension between his core beliefs and what Facebook users currently expect from the company. My sense is that’s a driving force behind attempting to pass the buck back to us.
Facebook will only go as far as their users pressure them, especially in the US where regulation from the government will be minimal. If we want Facebook to take responsibility, we have to continually hold them accountable when things go wrong or when proposed solutions don’t go far enough. Mark Zuckerberg’s personal challenge is to fix what’s broken. Ours is to keep pressing him in the right direction.
This piece was originally published as part of Melissa Ryan's Ctrl Alt Right Delete newsletter -- subscribe here.
While some fake news sites have lost Facebook verification, others are still verified
Some fake news websites are losing their verification status on their Facebook pages. If the pattern continues and Facebook is finally taking this meaningful action against the dissemination of fake news, it would be a welcome move by the social media platform.
Previously, Facebook had given a grey check mark to the Facebook page of fake news website Neon Nettle and blue check marks to the page of fake news website Freedom Daily and to The People’s Voice, a page operated by the owners of fake news website YourNewsWire. Facebook’s policy states that the purpose of the blue check mark next to a name is simply to confirm that the page is “the authentic Page” for a “public figure, media company or brand” and that the grey check mark indicates that it’s an “authentic Page for this business or organization.” But the symbols, like Twitter’s verification system, lend legitimacy to these pages and their posts.
As of January 18, the pages for Freedom Daily, Neon Nettle, and The People’s Voice no longer have check marks on their pages. It seems unlikely that multiple fake news website pages would lose their verifications within a seemingly similar span of time without Facebook’s involvement. This would also not be the first time Facebook penalized a fake news website’s page: In November, fake news website Liberty Writers’ verified page was taken down and its links blocked on Facebook. On the other hand, the changes do not guarantee that these pages will remain unverified; in November, YourNewsWire mysteriously lost its grey check mark, but it soon was restored.
If Facebook has decided to stop enabling fake news websites through its verification process, it has more work to do: Multiple other pages of fake news websites that Media Matters has noted are verified remain verified alongside YourNewsWire, such as American News, Conservative Tribune, Eagle Rising, Right Wing News, The Political Insider, and Prntly. The possible moves taken so far against these types of pages, if permanent, would be a positive step by Facebook, and is one of the steps Media Matters recommended Facebook take toward solving its fake news problem when it named Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg 2017’s Misinformer of the Year.
Facebook’s fake news problem remains deep, but denying a stamp of authenticity to websites that push blatant falsehoods would help.
New changes announced by Facebook to elevate content on its users’ news feed that is shared by friends and family over that shared by news publishers could wind up exacerbating Facebook’s fake news problem.
Over the past year, Facebook has struggled to combat the spread of fake news and misinformation on its platform. On January 11, the social media giant announced that it would change the algorithm of its news feed so that it would “prioritize what [users’] friends and family share and comment on,” according to The New York Times. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who was named Media Matters’ 2017 Misinformer of the Year, told the Times that the shift was “intended to maximize the amount of content with ‘meaningful interaction’ that people consume on Facebook.” Additionally, content from news publishers and brands will be given less exposure on the news feed. Facebook is also weighing including some kind of authority component to its news feed algorithm so outlets that are considered more credible will get more prominence in the news feed.
In the past year or so, Facebook has attempted to employ some measures in its effort to fight fake news, including its third party fact-checking initiative. Though these efforts have thus far been far from effective, the new changes threaten to undercut the measures even more.
At least one study has shown that Facebook users are influenced by their friends and family members’ actions and reactions on the site. Last year, New York magazine reported on a study that found that “people who see an article from a trusted sharer, but one written by an unknown media source, have much more trust in the information than people who see the same article from a reputable media source shared by a person they do not trust.” With Facebook’s new changes, as the Times noted, “If a relative or friend posts a link with an inaccurate news article that is widely commented on, that post will be prominently displayed.”
An additional point of concern is how this will exacerbate the problem of conservative misinformation specifically. Up until now, misinformation and fake news on social media have seemingly come from and been spread more by conservatives than liberals. And according to research conducted by Media Matters, right-wing communities on Facebook are much bigger than left-wing communities and mainstream distribution networks, and right-wing engagement is also bigger than in left-wing circles. These changes then could mean that peer-to-peer promotion of right-wing misinformation will more likely lead to fake news being pushed toward the top of people’s news feed.
The changes will also likely cause real harm to legitimate news outlets by burying their stories. The head of Facebook’s news feed admitted that some pages “may see their reach, video watch time and referral traffic decrease.” Smaller, less-known outlets, especially those that do not produce content on the platform (such as live videos), could face major financial losses from the move. Facebook’s head of news partnerships, Campbell Brown, also wrote to some major publishers that the changes would cause people to see less content from “publishers, brands, and celebrities,” but that “news stories shared between friends will not be impacted,” which could suggest that fake news might get promoted over content directly from legitimate news outlets.
It’s conceivable that adding some kind of authority component that ensures “articles from more credible outlets have a better chance of virality” could help lessen this possibility. Such a move would be a welcome development, and Media Matters has recommended that Facebook include it in its algorithm. But the possible criteria that Facebook is currently considering to determine which publisher is credible -- such as “public polling about news outlets” and “whether readers are willing to pay for news from particular publishers” -- is vague and could be problematic to enforce. And The Wall Street Journal noted that Facebook was still undecided about adding the authority component; without that, the possible negative impact from these news feed changes could be even worse.
It is possible that Facebook’s move to include “Related Articles” next to the posts that its fact-checking partners have flagged could override people’s tendency to believe what their peers share. And perhaps the algorithm that tries to stop the spread of stories the fact-checkers have flagged may decrease the spread of fake news. But it’s also possible that these new moves undermine those initiatives, and that Zuckerberg’s aim to make users more happy could also make them more misinformed.
Facebook is “the most important mechanism facilitating the spread of fake news” and its efforts to curb the spread of fake news through fact-checking are unlikely to succeed, according to a new study.
The 2016 election saw the rise of fake news websites which distributed fabricated information packaged to appear as legitimate news articles. The study, released last week by the political scientists Andrew Guess, Brendan Nyhan, and Jason Reifler, examined web traffic data collected from the computers of a national sample of Americans from October 7-November 14, 2016 -- a period which includes the final weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign -- in order to map who consumed fake news and which platforms helped spread it.
The political scientists estimated that more than a quarter of American adults visited a page on a pro-Donald Trump or pro-Hillary Clinton fake news website. Most of the fake news was pro-Trump, and people who supported his campaign were significantly more likely to visit fake news sites than people who supported Clinton.
The authors highlighted the role of Facebook in propagating fabricated information, reporting that “heavy Facebook users were differentially likely to consume fake news, which was often immediately preceded by a visit to Facebook.” Fake news consumers were much more likely to be referred to those sites from Facebook than from Google, Twitter, or email.
Facebook has largely sought to cope with fake news through an alliance with independent fact-checking organizations. But the study suggests this effort is flawed because the people most likely to view fake news may not believe the fact-checks: “Positive views of fact-checking are less common among fake news consumers (48%), especially those who support Trump (24%).”
The fake news problem has not dissipated since the late 2016, the time frame of the study. BuzzFeed News reported last week: “Facebook’s major effort to stop the spread of false articles on its platform did not result in less engagement for the most viral hoaxes in 2017, according to an analysis by BuzzFeed News. In fact, the analysis found that the 50 most viral fake news stories of 2017 generated more total shares, reactions, and comments than the top 50 hoaxes of 2016.”
Last month, Media Matters named Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg our Misinformer of the Year, noting Facebook's central position in the fake news infrastructure and its repeated failures to respond.
Today, Media Matters for America named Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as its 2017 Misinformer of the Year. The designation is presented annually to the media figure, news outlet, or organization that is the most influential or prolific purveyor of misinformation.
Media Matters President Angelo Carusone explained why Mark Zuckerberg is the Misinformer of the Year:
“We selected Mark Zuckerberg as the Misinformer of the Year because Facebook's actions in 2017 have been more of a public relations campaign than a deeper systemic approach to address the underlying causes of the proliferation of fake news and disinformation.
I know that Facebook has the talent and knows how to implement some meaningful countermeasures. Instead of utilizing that talent, Zuckerberg has spent too much time downplaying the crisis and repeating his mistakes from 2016, like continually caving to right-wing pressure. There are some very basic things that Facebook can do to make meaningful dents in this problem -- and my hope for 2018 is that Mark Zuckerberg lets his team take those steps and more.”
Here’s more about why Mark Zuckerberg earned the Misinformer of the Year designation:
Not only did Mark Zuckerberg allow Facebook to be used to mislead, misinform and suppress voters during the 2016 election, but he took active steps in an attempt to assuage right-wing critics that actually made the problem worse. He subsequently downplayed concerns about Facebook’s clear impact on the 2016 election. Instead of learning from those past mistakes, Zuckerberg has repeated them, continuing to act in a way designed to inoculate against or mollify right-wing critics, despite evidence that 126 million Facebook users saw election-related propaganda in 2016.
Mark Zuckerberg’s inaction and half-measures illustrate either his lack of recognition of the scope and scale of the crisis or his refusal to accept responsibility. After intense public pressure made Facebook’s misinformation problem impossible to ignore, Zuckerberg announced a series of toothless policy changes that are more public relations ploys than real meaningful solutions. Notably, little effort has been made to improve its news feed algorithm so that Facebook is not turbocharging disreputable or extreme content simply because it has high engagement, or to grapple with the scores of Facebook-verified disinformation and fake news pages masquerading as news sites.
Facebook’s third-party fact-checking system doesn't stop fake news from going viral. Fact-checkers who have partnered with Facebook have voiced their concerns about the company’s transparency and effectiveness of their efforts as Zuckerberg has largely refused to release Facebook’s data for independent review.
In yet another attempt to mollify right-wing critics, Zuckerberg’s Facebook partnered with disreputable right-wing media outlet The Weekly Standard, thus allowing an outlet that baselessly criticizes fact-checkers and undermines confidence in journalism into its fact-checking program.
Media Matters is the nation’s premier media watchdog. Following the 2016 presidential election, Media Matters acknowledged that in order to fully carry out its mission, its scope of work must incorporate an analysis of the way digital platforms influenced the larger problem of misinformation and disinformation in the media landscape.
Media Matters’ selection of Mark Zuckerberg as Misinformer of the Year reflects Zuckerberg’s failure to take seriously Facebook’s role as a major source of news and information, and his failure to address Facebook’s role in spreading fake news, yet repeating past mistakes that are actually making the problem worse.