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  • Facebook has a long history of failing its users. The massive data breach is just the latest example.

    As Facebook continues to deal with the fallout from the largest data breach in its history, Media Matters takes a look back at some of its previous failures

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN & ALEX KAPLAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Facebook recently announced the worst data breach in the company’s history, affecting approximately 30 million users. This breach allowed hackers to “directly take over user accounts” and see everything in their profiles. The breach “impacted Facebook's implementation of Single Sign-On, the practice that lets you use one account to log into others.” Essentially, any site users signed into using their Facebook login -- like Yelp, Airbnb, or Tinder -- was also vulnerable. Hackers who have access to the sign-on tokens could theoretically log into any of these sites as any user whose data was exposed in the hack. As a precaution, Facebook logged 90 million users out of their accounts. On October 12, the company offered users a breakdown of how many people were affected and what data was exposed.

    Via Facebook:

    The attackers used a portion of these 400,000 people’s lists of friends to steal access tokens for about 30 million people. For 15 million people, attackers accessed two sets of information – name and contact details (phone number, email, or both, depending on what people had on their profiles). For 14 million people, the attackers accessed the same two sets of information, as well as other details people had on their profiles. This included username, gender, locale/language, relationship status, religion, hometown, self-reported current city, birthdate, device types used to access Facebook, education, work, the last 10 places they checked into or were tagged in, website, people or Pages they follow, and the 15 most recent searches. For 1 million people, the attackers did not access any information.

    Users can find out if they were affected and what data was accessed at Facebook’s help center.

    Even with the update, we still don’t know enough information about the breach. We don’t know who was behind the attack. The FBI is investigating the hack, as well as the European Union (via Ireland’s Data Protection Commission, Facebook’s lead privacy regulator in Europe). Multiple members of Congress have expressed concern about the breach.

    What we do know is that this latest data breach is hardly the only way Facebook has failed its consumers. Media Matters has cataloged Facebook’s multitude failures to protect its consumers since the company’s beginnings.

    Data privacy

    Cambridge Analytica

    The public learned about Facebook’s most notorious data privacy breach on March 16 of this year. Facebook abruptly announced that it had banned Cambridge Analytica, the firm that did data targeting for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, from using the platform for, according to The Verge, “violating its policies around data collection and retention.” The next day, The New York Times and The Observer broke the story Facebook was clearly trying to get ahead of: Cambridge Analytica had illegally obtained and exploited the Facebook data of 50 million users in multiple countries.

    Christopher Wylie, Cambridge Analytica’s former research director, blew the whistle on how the firm used the ill-gotten data of Facebook’s users to target American voters in 2016. The company, founded by right-wing megadonor Robert Mercer, had political clients in the U.S. and around the world; it did work for President Donald Trump’s campaign, Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, current national security adviser John Bolton’s super PAC, and more. Following Wylie’s exposé, more information was revealed about the firm: Its leadership was caught on camera “talking about using bribes, ex-spies, fake IDs and sex workers.” It gave a sales presentation about disrupting elections to a Russian oligarch in 2014. And the firm reached out to WikiLeaks in 2016 offering to help release then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s emails. Following these revelations, Cambridge Analytica shut down (though there are serious questions about whether it spun off into a new company).

    The data breach didn’t just expose Facebook user data to a political consulting firm; it exposed it to a company backed by a right-wing billionaire whose full operations aren’t yet known. Put another way, a shady operation was offering services like entrapment to potential clients, and the only tool required to do that was Facebook.

    Facebook continues to find more unauthorized scraping of user data. The company disabled a network of accounts belonging to Russian database provider SocialDataHub for unauthorized collection of user information. The company previously provided analytical services to the Russian government, and its CEO even praised Cambridge Analytica.

    Advertising profits over user privacy

    Facebook’s business model monetizes the personal information of its users for advertising purposes. Advertisers on Facebook pay for access to information about users in order to create better-targeted ad campaigns. But over the course of Facebook’s history, the company has continually exposed user data without their consent, putting profits over privacy considerations.

    In 2009, Facebook was forced to settle a class action lawsuit from users and shut down its Beacon ad network, which posted users’ online purchases from participating websites on their news feeds without their permission. In 2010, Facebook was caught selling data to advertising companies that could be used to identify individual users. The company has been fined in Europe multiple times for tracking non-users for the purpose of selling ads. It admitted in March that it collected call history and text messages from users on Android phones for years.

    Exposing data of Facebook employees

    Facebook’s privacy failures affect its employees as well. The Guardian reported last year that a security lapse exposed the personal details of 1,000 content moderators across 22 departments to users suspected of being terrorists. Forty of those moderators worked on Facebook’s counterterrorism unit in Ireland, at least one of whom was forced to go into hiding for his own safety because of potential threats from terrorist groups he banned on the platform.

    Misinformation

    Trending Topics

    In response to a Gizmodo article claiming Facebook employees were suppressing conservative outlets in its Trending Topics section, the company fired its human editors in 2016 and starting relying on an algorithm to decide what was trending. Following this decision, multiple fake stories and conspiracy theories appeared in the trending section. The problems with Trending Topics continued through this year, with the section repeatedly featuring links to conspiracy theory websites and posts from figures known for pushing conspiracy theories. Facebook mercifully removed Trending Topics altogether in June 2018.

    State-sponsored influence operations and propaganda

    During the 2016 campaign, Russian operatives from the organization known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA) -- which is owned by a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin -- ran multiple pages that tried to exploit American polarization. In particular, the IRA ran ads meant to stoke tensions about the way American police treat Black people while using other pages to support the police; the organization also played both sides on immigration.

    The IRA also stole identities of Americans and created fake profiles to populate its pages focusing on “social issues like race and religion.” It then used the pages to organize political rallies about those issues. During the campaign, some Facebook officials were aware of the Russian activity, yet did not take any action. In 2017, Facebook officials told the head of the company’s security team to tamp down details in a public report it had prepared about the extent of Russian activity on the platform. It was only after media reporting suggested Facebook had missed something that the company found out the extent of that activity. So far this year, Facebook has taken down accounts potentially associated with the IRA.

    Facebook in August 2018 also removed a number of accounts that the company had linked to state media in Iran.

    Foreign networks spreading fake news and getting ad revenue

    Since at least 2015, Facebook has been plagued by fake news stories originating from Macedonia that are pushed on the platform to get clicks for ad revenue. Despite being aware of those activities during the 2016 campaign, Facebook took no action to stop it, even as locals in Macedonia “launched at least 140 US politics websites.” Since then, Facebook has claimed that it has taken steps to prevent this kind of activity. But it has continued as Macedonian accounts used the platform to spread fake stories about voter fraud in special elections in Alabama in 2017 and Pennsylvania in 2018.

    Macedonians aren’t the only foreign spammers on Facebook: A large network of users posing as Native Americans has operated on the platform since at least 2016. The network exploited the Standing Rock protests to sell merchandise, and it has posted fake stories to get ad revenue. While much of this activity has come out of Kosovo, users from Serbia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Macedonia, and the Philippines are also involved.

    Facebook has also regularly struggled to notice and respond to large foreign spammer networks that spread viral hoaxes on the platform:

    • The platform allowed a Kosovo-based network of pages and groups that had more than 100,000 followers combined to repeatedly push fake news. Facebook finally removed the network following multiple Media Matters reports.

    • The platform allowed a network of pages and groups centered in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that had more than 60,000 followers to publish fake stories. It was taken down following a Media Matters report.

    Facebook officials have also downplayed the key role Facebook groups play in spreading fake news, even though the platform has been used regularly by people in other countries to push fake stories.

    Domestic disinformation campaigns

    Until just recently, Facebook did not respond to network of pages that regularly posted false stories and hoaxes and worked together to amplify their disinformation. The pages in the networks would coordinate and amplify their disinformation content. Facebook finally took down some of these domestic disinformation networks on October 11, right before the 2018 midterms, noting they violated its spam and inauthentic behavior policies. But as Media Matters has documented, even this sweep missed some obvious targets.

    Fake news thriving on Facebook

    Facebook’s fake news problem can be illustrated well by one of the most successful fake news sites on the platform, YourNewsWire. Based in California, YourNewsWire has been one of the most popular fake news sites in the United States and has more than 800,000 followers through its Facebook pages. Time and time again, hoaxes the site has published have gone viral via Facebook. Some of these fake stories have been flat out dangerous and have been shared on Facebook hundreds of thousands of times. Facebook’s designated third-party fact-checkers debunked the stories the site had published more than 80 times before it appears Facebook finally took action and penalized it in its news feed, forcing the site to respond to the fact-checkers’ repeated debunks.

    Fake news has also been a problem in Facebook searches: Since at least 2017, fake stories about celebrities have popped up in Facebook searches, even after some had been debunked by Facebook’s designated third-party fact-checkers. Facebook in response has said it is trying to improve Facebook search results.

    The problem has also extended to its ads. In May 2018, Facebook launched a public database of paid ads deemed “political” that ran on the platform. A review of the database found that the platform, in violation of its own policies, allowed ads featuring fake stories and conspiracy theories.

    Withholding 2016 data from researchers

    After the 2016 election, researchers repeatedly urged Facebook to give them access to its data to examine how misinformation spreads on the platform. In April, the platform announced it would launch an independent research commission that would have access to the data. However, the platform has refused to allow researchers to examine data from before 2017, meaning data from during the 2016 election is still inaccessible.

    Misuse of Instant Articles

    BuzzFeed reported earlier this year that fake news creators were pushing their content via Facebook’s Instant Articles, a feature that allows stories to load on the Facebook mobile app itself and which Facebook partly earns revenue from. In response, Facebook claimed it had “launched a comprehensive effort across all products to take on these scammers.” Yet the platform has continued to allow bad actors to use the feature for fake stories and conspiracy theories.

    Problems with fact-checking

    In response to the proliferation of fake news on the platform after the 2016 campaign, Facebook partnered with third-party fact-checkers to review posts flagged by users as possible fake news. Since then, some of these fact-checkers have criticized Facebook for not being transparent, particularly in its flagging process, withholding data on the effectiveness of the debunks, and failing to properly communicate with them.

    In 2017, Facebook included the conservative Weekly Standard in its fact-checking program in the United States. The platform otherwise included only nonpartisan fact-checkers in its program, and since then it has not included any corresponding progressive outlet. This has resulted in the conservative outlet fact-checking and penalizing in the news feed a progressive outlet over a disputed headline, which was harshly criticized.

    Human and civil rights violations

    Poor policies for monitoring white supremacy and hate

    This year, leaked documents showed that while Facebook’s content policies forbid hate speech arising from white supremacy, so-called white nationalist and white separatist views were considered acceptable, a policy it is now reviewing after public scrutiny. A 2017 Pro Publica investigation of Facebook’s content policies showed that white men were protected from hate speech but Black children were not. Neo-Nazis and white supremacists continue to profit by selling white supremacist clothing and products on Facebook and Instagram. Zuckerberg also defended the rights of Holocaust deniers to share their conspiracy theories on the platform.

    After years of pressure from civil rights groups, Facebook finally agreed to submit to a civil rights audit, but it also announced the creation of a panel to review supposed bias against conservatives the same day, equating the civil rights of its users with partisan bickering by Republicans.

    Contributing to violence in multiple countries

    Facebook in recent years has actively expanded to developing countries. Since then, the platform has been used in Myanmar and Sri Lanka to encourage hate and violence against minorities, resulting in riots and killings. In Libya, militias have used the platform to sell weapons, find their opponents, and coordinate attacks. The United Nations has issued multiple reports criticizing Facebook’s role in Myanmar, suggesting the platform “contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes” in the country. Activists and officials in those countries also complained that Facebook had not employed moderators to monitor for hateful content, nor had they established clear points of contact for people in those countries to contact them to issue concerns.

    Content sent via messaging app WhatsApp, which Facebook owns, has also caused problems. In India, hoaxes spreading through the platform have led to multiple lynchings, and the Indian government (whose supporters have themselves spread hoaxes) has pressured the company to clamp down on misinformation. In response, the platform has resorted to going on the road to perform skits to warn people about WhatsApp hoaxes. Other countries like Brazil and Mexico have also struggled with hoaxes spreading through WhatsApp, with the latter also seeing lynchings as a result.

    Used by authoritarians to target opponents

    Certain governments have also used Facebook as a means to target and punish their perceived opponents. In the Philippines, supporters of President Rodrigo Duterte, some of whom have been part of Duterte’s government, have spread fake content on the platform to harass and threaten his opponents. And in Cambodia, government officials have tried to exploit Facebook’s policies to target critics of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

    Ads discrimination

    Facebook’s ad policies have allowed people to exclude groups based on their race while creating a target audience for their ads, as ProPublica noted in 2016. The following year, it found that despite Facebook’s claims to stop such discrimination, housing ads on the platform continued to exclude target audience by race, sex, disability, and other factors. In 2017, civil rights groups filed a lawsuit against the platform and the Department of Housing and Urban Development also filed a complaint. Another investigation the same year found that the platform could exclude viewers by age from seeing job ads, a potential violation of federal law. In 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Facebook for allegedly allowing employers to exclude women from recruiting campaigns.

    Helping anti-refugee campaign in swing states

    In 2016, Facebook, along with Google, directly collaborated with an agency that was working with far-right group Secure America Now to help target anti-Muslim ads on Facebook to users in swing states that warned about Sharia law and attacked refugees.

    Online harassment

    Facebook has done little to protect people who become targets of online harassment campaigns, even though most of them are likely users of Facebook themselves. Time and again, Facebook has allowed itself to be weaponized for this purpose. Alex Jones and Infowars are perhaps the most famous examples of this problem. Even though Jones harassed Sandy Hook families for years, calling the school shooting a false flag, spreading hate speech, and engaging in other forms of bullying, Facebook continued to allow him free rein on its platform. The company finally banned Jones in July this year, after weeks of public pressure, including an open letter from two Sandy Hook parents, but only after Apple “stopped distributing five podcasts associated with Jones.”

    Facebook has also allowed conspiracy theorists and far-right activists to harass the student survivors of the Parkland school shooting, most of whom were minors, on the platform. More recently, it allowed right-wing meme pages to run a meme disinformation campaign targeting professor Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, and other survivors who came forward during the confirmation process of now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

    Still more screw-ups

    Then there are the failures that defy category. In 2012, Facebook conducted psychological tests on nearly 700,000 users without their consent or knowledge. Zuckerberg had to apologize after giving a virtual reality tour of hurricane-struck Puerto Rico. Illegal opioid sales run rampant on Facebook, among other platforms, and the company has been unable to curb or stop them.

    Even advertisers, the source of Facebook’s profit, haven’t been spared. Facebook’s latest political ad restrictions have created problems for local news outlets, LGBTQ groups, and undocumented immigrants seeking to buy ads. Facebook also had to admit to advertisers that it gave them inflated video-viewing metrics for the platform for over two years.

    What Facebook owes consumers

    As a college student, Zuckerberg offered the personal data of Facebook’s initial users at Harvard to his friend and joked that people were “dumb fucks” for trusting him with their personal information. One hopes that Zuckerberg’s respect for his customer base has improved since then, but Facebook’s many failures since suggest that it hasn’t.

    BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel suggested that Facebook’s users simply don’t care enough about data privacy to stop using the platform. We have a slightly different theory: Users don’t leave Facebook because there’s no available alternative. Without a competitor, Facebook has no real incentive to fix what it’s broken.

    The impact of Facebook’s failures compound on society at large. As the founder of one of Facebook’s designated third-party fact-checkers told The New York Times, “Facebook broke democracy. Now they have to fix it.”

  • Facebook again does the bare minimum in response to a PR crisis

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    The Washington Post reported Facebook has “purged over 800 accounts and pages pushing political messages for profit.”

    Angelo Carusone, President of Media Matters released the following statement:

    Early voting is already happening in some states, and Election Day is a few weeks away, so it’s especially inexcusable that Facebook is only now deleting political disinformation pages. Facebook has long been aware of the presence and activities of these pages but did nothing until the company sensed a potential public relations disaster as reporters started working on stories about right-wing networks intentionally promoting misinformation through their operation of these pages.

    So, while it’s a good thing that Facebook is finally taking this action, it’s yet another example that Facebook is not prepared to proactively meet the challenges of abuse and misinformation on its platform; instead, the platform does the bare minimum to respond to the latest PR crisis.

    Previously:

    How the Facebook right-wing propaganda machine works

    Facebook is fueling far-right extremism -- and profiting off of it

    Facebook has permitted political ads featuring fake news, bigotry, and conspiracy theories

    Under Facebook’s new algorithm, conservative meme pages are outperforming all political news pages

  • Pro-Kavanaugh shills claim nominee is the victim of a "lynching." Have they ever seen a lynching?

    Lynchings were a cornerstone of a hundred-year campaign of racial terrorism in defense of white supremacy, but conservatives see parallels with a powerful, wealthy white man facing consequences

    Blog ››› ››› BOBBY LEWIS

    Warning: This piece contains graphic images and descriptions. 

    An emerging right-wing media narrative that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is the victim of a “lynching” betrays not only conservative media’s desperation to salvage the nomination after he was credibly accused of sexual assault and likely perjured himself, but also their selfishness and superficiality when it comes to race relations in America. 

    On September 27, professor Christine Blasey Ford testified that Kavanaugh attempted to rape her at a high school party in the early 1980s. Right-wing media had already been building up a campaign against Ford since news of her allegations broke earlier in the month. But after her testimony, they dialed up their campaign to discredit Ford, with some of them eventually landing on the idea that the opposition to Kavanaugh is nothing but a “lynching.” 

    Attacking a sexual assault survivor with a reductive take on racial terrorism is, unfortunately, very on-brand for American conservatism in 2018. Fox’s Sean Hannity led the charge out of the gate; on September 17, the day after Ford went public, Hannity compared her allegations to the “vicious and horrible and nasty and unjust” hearings about Anita Hill’s sexual harassment reports against Justice Clarence Thomas and aired a clip of Thomas’ infamous “high-tech lynching” line. The Thomas quote was favorably recalled by several right-wing media figures, but they didn’t stop there: Several conservative and right-wing media figures took it upon themselves to make the comparison directly.

    On September 22, Fox’s Jeanine Pirro accused a guest of “setting this man up for his own lynching.” Similarly, the Family Research Council’s William Boykin told Newsbusters that he “thought lynching was made illegal and that the burden of proof rested upon the accuser, not the accused.” And Townhall published a piece (from a Black author) that audaciously began, “History is an easy and convenient thing to forget,” before comparing Kavanaugh to Emmett Till, a Black 14 year-old lynched in 1955 because of a white woman’s false groping allegation


    Mamie and Louis Till overlooking their son Emmett's corpse. (Time magazine)

    Perhaps the most depraved take came from National Review Editor-in-Chief Rich Lowry, who seems to compare Kavanaugh to the falsely accused in To Kill a Mockingbird, who is threatened with lynching. Lowry claims that a book famous for its themes of racial injustice “stands firmly for the proposition that an accusation can be false.” Lowry’s column completely ignores race -- the word doesn’t make a single appearance -- so it’s easy for him to twist Mockingbird into pablum about a man’s false accuser being “destroy[ed]” by an attorney who “doesn’t care about her feelings, only the facts.” In the original story, that same attorney also faces down a racist lynch mob outside the jail, but Lowry’s revisionist history inverts a hundred years of racial terror into a narrative that somehow vindicates Kavanaugh at the expense of his alleged victims. This take has spread throughout the right-wing Facebook echo chamber via a popular meme.

    In case conservative media have forgotten, lynchings are a uniquely reprehensible (and ongoing) part of American history. From 1882 to 1968, 4,743 people were lynched -- 72.7 percent of them Black -- for the express purpose of enforcing white supremacy. The victims were murdered in unspeakably horrific ways. Emmett Till, whom the Townhall piece compared to Kavanaugh, was found in a river, weighted down with a piece of a cotton gin. His face was so mangled by his attackers that he was unrecognizable. A sign marking where Till was murdered is regularly shot up by anonymous vandals. There’s also Mary Turner, a pregnant woman whose unborn child was cut from her womb and stomped to death (Turner was also set on fire and shot hundreds of times); Jesse Washington, who was doused in coal oil and hanged to death over burning crates, then carved into souvenirs and paraded around town; and Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie, who were dragged out of jail, beaten, hanged, then turned into postcards. Kavanaugh, in contrast, is facing extreme public scrutiny as he interviews for a job at the highest court in land. And if he doesn't get it, he'll simply go back to his old cushy life as a federal judge. 


    A postcard made from an image of Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie's lynching, also known as the Duluth lynching. (Wikimedia Commons)

    Right-wing media’s increasingly racialized Kavanaugh coverage is especially rich considering their routine denunciations of “the race card.” When conservative media say Kavanaugh is being lynched, they are playing "the race card" with blinders on; their arguments invoking an era of racial terrorism are completely devoid of any meaningful racial analysis. They’re defending a credibly accused sexual predator by first inventing, then weaponizing, an alternative history in which one of the most infamous acts of racial violence isn’t racial at all -- it’s simply about attacking people.

    It’s no coincidence that right-wing media deployed a racially charged accusation of “lynching” at the same time the conservative movement has embraced Dinesh D’Souza’s laughable, brazenly dishonest version of American history in which the Democrats are “the real racists” and the well-documented party realignment around civil rights simply “did not take place.” The right’s attempts to put an accused sexual abuser on the Supreme Court -- after electing another one to the presidency -- only serve to highlight the profound moral and intellectual rot at the heart of American conservatism.

  • The Fox News show on Facebook's news streaming service has repeatedly shilled for Brett Kavanaugh

    Fox News Update pushes pro-Kavanaugh propaganda -- except for the episodes that Shep Smith hosts

    Blog ››› ››› NATALIE MARTINEZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Since several women reported Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh for sexual assault and sexual misconduct, the morning edition of Fox News’ show Fox News Update -- which airs on Facebook’s online streaming platform Facebook Watch -- has been spreading pro-Kavanaugh propaganda.

    Fox News Update launched this summer as part of a multimillion dollar content initiative by Facebook “to show news that is trustworthy, informative, and local.” The Fox show currently boasts more than 350,000 followers, generally consists of four to five minute headline reports, and airs live on weekdays at 6 a.m. and 4 p.m., and weekends at 10 a.m.

    Fox News Update morning editions have taken an aggressively pro-Kavanaugh stance, often featuring clips and comments exclusively from Kavanaugh allies (like the Judicial Crisis Network) while headlining news that downplays and discredits sexual assault reports.

    September 15

    One day after news first broke of a sexual assault report made against Kavanaugh, Fox News Update’s coverage opened with women defending him.

    Fox News Update host Ed Henry reported on a letter written by 65 women defending Kavanaugh before he ever mentioned the sexual assault report by a then-unidentified woman, and Kavanaugh’s denial.

    From the September 15 edition of Fox News Morning Update:

    ED HENRY (HOST): 65 women, meanwhile, stepping forward to defend President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Brett Kavanaugh. A letter sent to the Senate states in part, “Through the more than 35 years we have known him, Brett has stood out for his friendship, character. and integrity.” The letter comes after Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein reported an allegation against Kavanaugh to the FBI.

    September 17

    The second headline related to Kavanaugh from Fox News Morning Update came two days later on September 17’s edition of the show, after providing no coverage of new reports of Kavanaugh’s sexual misconduct on September 16. It featured a clip of a Judicial Crisis Network spokesperson calling sexual assault reports “an 11th-hour character assassination.”

    A day after a Washington Post story identified Christine Blasey Ford as the woman who had reported Kavanaugh for sexual assault, the pro-Kavanaugh right-wing group Judicial Crisis Network launched a $1.5 million ad campaign defending President Donald Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court. Fox News Morning Update reported the White House defense of Kavanaugh and aired a Fox & Friends First clip in which Judicial Crisis Network spokesperson Gayle Trotter cast doubt on Ford’s  reports, saying that if they “were credible, they would have been raised long before this” and characterizing them as an “eleventh-hour character assassination”

    From the September 17 edition of Fox News Morning Update:

    September 18

    The following day, Fox News Update ran a clip previously aired on Fox & Friends First featuring conservative attorney Mark W. Smith claiming the process in which sexual assault reports were presented to the Senate Judiciary Committee “looked a little sketchy.”

    From the September 18 edition of Fox News Morning Update:

    MARK W. SMITH: I think the strong presumption of innocence in this situation is on Brett Kavanaugh’s side. In the way they were presented to the Senate Judiciary Committee, frankly, looks a little sketchy. It was given to a very partisan Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, many months ago --

    HEATHER CHILDERS (HOST): And she had it for a while.

    SMITH: And she had it, and did nothing with it until only at the last second when it looked like the Kavanaugh nomination -- the confirmation was inevitable. Just the process itself raises real questions. Is this another D.C. establishment sort of game of dirty tricks?

    September 19

    On its September 19 edition, Fox News Morning Update only briefly mentioned updates related to the Kavanaugh reports before shifting focus to a Democratic "#MeToo double standard" regarding allegations of domestic abuse by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN). The allegations are rightfully under investigation by several entities, including potentially the House Ethics Committee.

    From the September 19 edition of Fox News Morning Update:

    September 20

    The first mention of Ford’s name on Fox News Morning Update came four days after she was identified by The Washington Post.

    Fox News Morning Update aired a Fox & Friends First clip in which Fox News contributor Lisa Boothe called sexual assault reports about Kavanaugh an “over-correction” from the #MeToo movement, bemoaning that Kavanaugh’s “future, his life is not being taken into account”.

    From the September 20 edition of Fox News Morning Update:

    LISA BOOTHE (FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR): I think there has now been this overcorrection where a man is guilty until proven innocent and I don’t want to live in that society either. … No, it is not OK if an innocent man gets caught up in this malign smear, his career is ruined. And that is my problem with the #MeToo movement, because in the instance of Brett Kavanaugh, his future, his life is not being taken into account. And his life is hanging in the balance here as well, and that needs to be considered.

    September 21

    After Ford agreed to testify in Congress, Fox News Update aired a clip of Kavanaugh’s former clerk calling sexual assault reports “outlandish and ridiculous.”

    From the September 21 edition of Fox News Morning Update:

    JENNIFER MASCOTT (FORMER CLERK FOR KAVANAUGH): My reaction reading the report is that it was outlandish and ridiculous. I clerked for Judge Kavanaugh his first year on the bench, and in my experience with him then, and in the 12 years following with him and his family, he’s been nothing but completely above board, transparent, highest amount of character and integrity.

    September 22

    Fox News Update criticized Ford for requesting that certain conditions be met for her to testify, airing a Fox & Friends clip featuring frequent Fox guest Alan Dershowitz.

    From the September 22 edition of Fox News Morning Update:

    September 24

    After The New Yorker reported that Deborah Ramirez said an inebriated Kavanaugh had put his penis in front of her face while they were both undergraduate students at Yale, Fox News Morning Update referred back to the Judicial Crisis Network’s spokesperson, who characterized Ramirez’s report as a “smear attempt.”

    Fox News Update host Carly Shimkus introduced a clip of spokesperson Trotter by repeating her assertion that “Judge Kavanaugh’s lifetime of moral integrity will outlast these allegations.” From the September 24 edition of Fox News Morning Update:

    TROTTER: We’re seeing many similarities. Anybody can make a claim, an outrageous claim about someone. But what matters are facts and evidence, and the facts in this case are going to show that Judge Kavanaugh is going to be able to withstand this smear attempt because of his sterling character and sterling reputation.

    September 25

    Fox News Update replayed clips of Kavanaugh defending himself from Martha MacCallum’s interview with Kavanaugh and his wife without any mention of Ford or Ramirez.

    From the September 25 edition of Fox News Morning Update:

    September 27

    The morning before Ford’s testimony, Fox News Morning Update opened with a headline that read: “2 men claim Ford confused Kavanaugh for them.”

    The story, which was amplified by right-wing media, was rated “unproven” by the fact-checking website Snopes. In the same episode, the Judicial Crisis Network spokesperson used Fox’s headline to call all sexual assault reports made about Kavanaugh “unsubstantiated and discredited.”

    From the September 27 edition of Fox News Morning Update:

    TROTTER: As this story shows, when we get the facts about these allegations, we understand that every single one of the allegations is unsubstantiated and discredited. So here’s another example of this phenomenon where there are other witnesses who say that this story is in doubt. … The important thing to know is this is not a legal process, though. This is a far-left partisan smear of someone who will be another great justice. This attempt to smear him is going to fail. The Senate will confirm Judge Kavanaugh.

    September 28

    The day after Ford and Kavanaugh testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Fox News Update aired a clip of Kavanaugh’s personal friend defending him.

    Kavanaugh’s friend David McIntosh said sexual assault reports were part of a “Democrat smear campaign” against Kavanaugh and Trump. From the September 28 edition of Fox News Morning Update:

    That same day, Fox News Morning Update featured social media user comments that undermined sexual assault reports.

    Comments from users were solicited as reactions to the headline “Celebs mock Kavanaugh during hearing.” One user comment featured on the show defended Kavanaugh by writing “What exactly is the proper emotion for being falsely accused?” Another user comment the show promoted taunted the credibility sexual assault reports, stating, “Mocking a person for acting human? What’s next, finding someone guilty in the court of public opinion, and subsequently destroying their life, based on an accusation with zero corroboration? Oh wait..”

    From the September 28 edition of Fox News Morning Update:

    Afternoon updates

    The morning edition of Fox News Update has peppered its Facebook viewers with pro-Kavanaugh propaganda, mirroring the network’s coverage on television by using clips from Fox & Friends First and Fox & Friends.

    The way the sexual assault reports about Kavanaugh were covered by the afternoon edition of Fox News Update, usually hosted by Shepard Smith, illustrated the divide between Smith’s straight news reporting and the relentless partisanship of other content on the network. Afternoon updates included reports that didn’t minimize sexual misconduct reports -- like the September 21 afternoon headline reporting that the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport trended on Twitter after Trump tweeted questioning the timing of reports, or a report on September 27 covering the hearing in which both Ford and Kavanaugh testified, which called her “credible” and dismissed Republican claims that Ford was a political operative.

  • Right-wing Facebook pages are running a meme disinformation campaign targeting Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, and survivors

    Meme pages have weaved a narrative mocking and downplaying sexual assault and attempting to discredit survivors

    Blog ››› ››› NATALIE MARTINEZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Right-wing meme pages on Facebook have been propagating a smear campaign targeting two women, Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez, who reported that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted them and other survivors of sexual assault. Media Matters looked at memes posted by right-wing meme pages on Facebook between September 16 and September 26 and mapped out a timeline of major narratives related to Kavanaugh and sexual assault. We found a disinformation campaign that used false news and smears about Ford -- as well as sexual assault jokes, attacks against women who report assault, and calls to support Kavanaugh -- in order to downplay the reports of assault.

    After Christine Blasey Ford’s name became public, right-wing meme pages responded by spreading false news and memes attacking her.

    In the three days after The Washington Post named Ford as the author of the confidential letter reporting Kavanaugh for sexual misconduct, memes from right-wing meme pages attacking Ford and spreading false news painting her as a Democratic plant went viral. Memes tried to cast doubt on Ford’s allegations by questioning her timing in coming forward, claiming her allegations are “unprovable,” and challenging her recollection of events.

    A photo misidentified as a shot of Ford depicted her as a left-wing activist. Another photo of an activist misidentified as Ford spread the same day on other right-wing social media and websites, including The Daily Caller, which irresponsibly amplified it. Right-wing social media accounts frequently characterized Ford as a liberal “activist” or “plant,” with those comments often accompanied by false claims about Kavanaugh’s mother’s involvement in her parent’s foreclosure case; fabricated statements about Ford’s drinking habits and sexual partners; and false claims that her brother is connected to Fusion GPS and thus the Russia investigation.

    After the first wave of smears against Ford went viral, memes and engagement bait rallying support for Kavanaugh spread on Facebook.

    Memes smearing and belittling Ford (some of them containing false information) continued going viral and reaching massive audiences on a daily basis between September 16 and September 26. But right after the first big wave of viral smears ended around September 18, a new crop of memes supporting Kavanaugh emerged. These memes contained generic messages of support for Kavanaugh, without detailing specific defenses for his actions. (Along with this batch of posts rallying the Republican base, a meme calling for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to apologize to Kavanaugh and resign spread on right-wing Facebook pages.)

    Since reports of sexual misconduct by Kavanaugh came out, jokes trivializing sexual assault have been rampant on right-wing Facebook pages.

    Some of the jokes in these memes allude to Ford’s and Ramirez’s reports of assault by mocking the timing of the allegations and accusing Ford and Ramirez of having political motives. Some memes included pictures of young boys or babies touching women or girls, joking that the boys in the picture would never be able to pursue a political career. One of the most popular memes in this disinformation campaign used anti-trans rhetoric to justify blatant sexual misconduct. It earned over 129,000 interactions, and right-wing pundit Ned Ryun even adopted its language on Twitter.

    The specific disinformation campaign against Ford and Ramirez was about discrediting survivors of sexual assault in general.

    Before the first smear against Ford went viral on right-wing meme pages, a meme asking followers if women should face criminal charges for making false rape allegations earned over 30,000 interactions on Facebook. Throughout the week, other right-wing meme pages reposted the meme (which had also been recycled through the right-wing social media ecosystem before the reports came out about Kavanaugh). Multiple memes about false sexual assault allegations, most of which encouraged criminal charges against women who file allegedly false reports, went viral this week in conjunction with memes attempting to discredit Ford and Ramirez. Some memes shared by multiple pages used the true story of Brian Banks, a football player falsely accused and convicted of rape, to ask followers: “Should women go to jail for false rape accusations?” Family Research Council fellow Ken Blackwell posted a meme (which was shared by another right-wing page) questioning whether women who falsely testify under oath about sexual assault should face criminal penalties. In the status text of the post, Blackwell mentioned Kavanaugh.

    Right-wing meme pages also shared a set of memes pushing the idea that mothers should be afraid that false accusations could target their sons. A network of accounts on Facebook and Instagram connected to the fake news site The Political Insider shared a meme with the text: “Every mother of boys should be terrified that at any time, any girl can fabricate any story without proof and ruin their lives.” Six other right-wing meme pages shared a similar meme, all of them writing Feinstein’s D.C. office number in the status text and urging readers to call the senator. Another meme that right-wing pages posted and that spread through pro-Trump and far-right Facebook groups using the hashtag #HimToo stated: “As long as women who accuse men of sexual attacks are believed without evidence or due process, no man is safe.” One meme posted by Conservative World Daily featured a picture of Kavanaugh and used similar rhetoric, painting him as a victim.

    Most of these memes about hypothetical men facing hypothetical allegations referenced “boys” rather than “men.” The characterization of alleged perpetrators as young people overlaps with the sexual assault jokes centered on male children inappropriately touching women or girls. These references to youth play into the right-wing narrative that Kavanaugh’s age at the time of the reported assaults should mitigate the reports of sexual misconduct.

    This meme disinformation campaign on Facebook attempted to downplay the severity of sexual misconduct reports made against Kavanaugh and discredit Ford before she testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

    One post referenced Ford and Ramirez as “Democrat women,” but no viral memes from this disinformation campaign directly targeted Ramirez. Even after The New Yorker published Ramirez’s report, the most frequent target of viral memes in this disinformation campaign was still Ford, who was often referenced by name or alluded to by mention of details pertaining to her report. The meme pages thus focused on discrediting the individual who was set to testify in Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing rather than other individuals who have brought forth reports of sexual assault or who have supported Ford’s report.

    At the same time, right-wing meme pages have woven their smears of Ford and support for Kavanaugh into larger narratives that mock and downplay sexual assault altogether and try to discredit all survivors.

  • A week-old Facebook page with foreign connections pushed a fake Kavanaugh story that went viral

    The video in question is really of a 2016 event in France

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    UPDATE (10/1/18): The page World against terrorism was removed from Facebook after the bikers hoax received more than 4 million views and 160,000 shares. It is unclear whether the page owners or Facebook removed it.

    A Facebook page that is little more than a week old and has connections to a Macedonian fake news network shared a video falsely claiming a group of bikers were coming to Washington, D.C., to rally for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The mislabeled video has received hundreds of thousands of views and tens of thousands of shares.

    On September 24, the Facebook page World against terrorism posted a video of bikers on a highway with the caption: “OUTSTANDING!! Bikers for Trump on thier (sic) way to Washington DC to Support the Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearing and Demand Sen. [Dianne] Feinsten (sic) to resign! This is Amazing! Thank you Bikers for Trump!” The mislabeled video currently has around 50,000 shares and about 830,000 views. The Republican Party of Charlotte County, FL, also shared the video, writing, “Bikers for Trump on the way to Washington D.C. to support Kavanaugh and ask for resignation of Sen Feinstein!”

    The claim from the post is false -- the video actually appears to be from a 2016 demonstration in France, according to photos from Getty Images.

    This is not the first time a fake story about bikers coming to Washington, D.C., circulated on social media. Earlier this year, a fake story spread about bikers heading to the capital to demand an end to special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. And in early 2017, mislabeled videos and photos made rounds that exaggerated the number of bikers coming to Washington, D.C., for President Donald Trump’s inauguration -- a claim Trump later pushed.

    The page, World against terrorism, currently has slightly more than 10,000 followers. Since it was created on September 16, it has posted multiple anti-Muslim memes and videos. Beginning September 23, the page also started linking to articles from two sites -- weirdworldinfo.com and cukaminfo.com -- some of which are misleading or are fake news. Both sites are registered in Macedonia, and both were created just days before the Facebook page. According to the analytic tool Trendolizer, both sites also have the same Google AdSense ID as a previously discovered network of Macedonian fake news sites whose content was also being shared by fake Twitter accounts.

    Earlier in September, Facebook introduced a feature in the U.S. that allows users to see the countries of people running pages with a “large audience size.” This means that pages with a smaller audience that seem to mask their real purpose of driving clicks to fake news sites that carry ads will continue to fly under the radar.

    Facebook watchdog Sarah Thompson’s research was instrumental to this post.

  • A Facebook group masquerading as an official Sean Hannity fan group is actually run by foreign spammers

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    UPDATE (9/19/18): The group has been deleted since the publication of this report.

    A private Facebook group masquerading as an official fan group for Fox News host Sean Hannity is actually run by Eastern Europeans using it to trick fans into clicking on fake news to bring in advertising revenue. The group is the only part remaining of a network of Kosovo groups and accounts previously identified by Media Matters that had also tricked Americans with fake stories for clicks.

    The closed group, called Sean Hannity Fans ( OFFICIAL ), has more than 33,000 members and describes itself as the “Official Group For Sean Hannity.” Many Americans in the group seem to take the group’s name at face value, posting laudatory messages about Hannity and clips from his show.

    But the group’s real purpose is not to promote Hannity. For one, none of the group’s administrators and moderators appear to be American -- one is from Eastern Europe, and others feature Eastern European activity on their accounts. One of the moderators also tagged himself with another moderator in Kosovo in 2017. All five of them also ran a now-deleted group called Sean Hannity FANS, part of a Facebook network based in Podujevo, Kosovo, that pushed fake news. It took Facebook nearly two months after Media Matters uncovered the network to take down most of the groups and pages in it, but the platform still left the Sean Hannity Fans ( OFFICIAL ) group untouched.

    All of the moderators’ accounts have also spammed the Sean Hannity Fans ( OFFICIAL ) group with numerous fake stories, including pieces targeting Muslims and a story about Hillary Clinton originating from fake news site True Pundit.

    Another account that appears to be from Eastern Europe has spammed the group with fake news, such as a debunked story about renaming Florida’s “Old Dixie Highway,” and another fake story about celebrities calling for a Hollywood strike until President Donald Trump resigns.

    The main site, dailygroup.pw, that this account has linked to recently carries Google AdSense (whose ads include the tag “AdChoices” at the top right), meaning the site earns money when group members click on these fake stories.

    Facebook groups continue to be a major problem for the platform. Users frequently employ them to push harassment and conspiracy theories -- and foreign spammers use them to spread hoaxes and smears -- all without much oversight. Facebook has said it is using machine learning to catch spammers sharing fake stories, but many still slip through. Facebook officials have also downplayed the key role groups play in spreading fake news.

  • Florida GOP officials are running a private conspiracy theory Facebook group

    The group “Florida Republicans United" has trafficked in conspiracy theories about the Parkland, FL, school shooting and the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA 

    Blog ››› ››› NATALIE MARTINEZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Two Orange County Republican Party officials in Florida are administrators of the private conspiracy theory Facebook group Florida Republicans United. Lou Marin and Kathy Gibson are the vice chair and state committeewoman, respectively, for the Orange County Republican Executive Committee. Gibson recently came under fire for posting a racist meme targeting Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, which she claims was posted by someone who had hacked into her Facebook account.

    Administrators, including Marin, have pushed far-right conspiracy theories like QAnon and others related to the Parkland shooting, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA, and the murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. They have also posted anti-LGBTQ, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim content. The official Facebook page of the Orange County Republican Executive Committee often posts the same links to far-right conspiracy theories and fake news that Marin posts in the group.

    Other administrators of the group include far-right conspiracy theorist Trevor Loudon of New Zealand (who is also an administrator of the racist, conspiracy theory-pushing Facebook group Tea Party) and Keith Flaugh, who founded the conservative anti-science group Florida Citizens’ Alliance.

    The group has ties to Republican candidates and lawmakers

    Marin created a private event in the Facebook group for a meet-and-greet with Republican candidates where Florida gubernatorial candidate Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) is slated to speak. DeSantis is not currently listed as a member of Florida Republicans United (his personal Facebook account was deactivated after he was outed as an administrator for the group Tea Party). However, eight other Florida Republicans -- a mix of candidates for office and current lawmakers -- appear to be listed as members. They are:

    Virginia Fuller is the only Republican candidate listed above who appears to have campaigned in the group. She shared posts from her campaign page and sought paid volunteers in the group multiple times.

    Former Arizona Senate candidate Kelli Ward is also a member of this group.

    Administrators spread far-right conspiracies and fake news

    Marin posted various conspiracy theories and fake news articles related to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. One article Marin shared from a fake news website speculated that the Parkland shooting was “just another false flag designed to take your guns.” He shared articles from far-right conspiracy theory websites accusing Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg of being coached before televised interviews, of conspiring with CNN, and of changing his story in different interviews. Marin also shared various articles from fake news sites that smeared Hogg, including one which said Hogg “should not be taken seriously as a ‘mass shooting survivor.’”

    Marin and another administrator of the group, John Lofgren, spread conspiracy theories about the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. Lofgren called the rally a “false flag operation” and also encouraged group members to ask their representatives and senators to “support Trump’s ‘both sides are wrong’ statement” because “the agitators from the left were paid - and they probably paid those fake ‘right wing’ activists, too.”

    Marin posted articles from fake news sites saying that CNN lied about Charlottesville; claiming that philanthropist George Soros and the CIA were connected to the Charlottesville rally; and defending James Alex Fields Jr., the neo-Nazi who killed counterprotester Heather Heyer by charging into a crowd with a car. Marin also shared a post questioning the legitimacy of reporting surrounding Charlottesville, which said that “the media and the political establishment [are] just capitalizing on a tragedy to sell tickets.”

    Marin also shared various posts related to the QAnon right-wing conspiracy theory. Lofgren and Marin also shared multiple articles supporting far-right conspiracy theories related to DNC staffer Seth Rich’s murder.

    Florida GOP officials and other admins also made bigoted remarks in the group

    Lofgren made multiple anti-Muslim posts, including two that linked to the hate site The Religion of Peace, which claims that it “examines the ideological threat that Islam poses to human dignity and freedom.” Marin posted an article titled “Islam and the West are incompatible.” Marin also posted an article claiming that “new evidence” from the 2016 shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, FL, was “not LGBT motivated.” And GOP official Kathy Gibson made various bigoted remarks about immigrants in a post criticizing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Gibson wrote that immigration has “everything to do with culture” and added that immigrants are part of “a third-world culture that does not value education that accepts children getting pregnant and dropping out of school by age 15, and that refuses to assimilate.”

  • Facebook has permitted political ads featuring fake news, bigotry, and conspiracy theories

    Blog ››› ››› NATALIE MARTINEZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Facebook’s archive of political ads is riddled with links to debunked fake news articles and headlines and content that pushes conspiracy theories.

    Based on Facebook’s advertising policies, “false content” is not permitted on landing pages for paid ads. However, none of the examples of prohibited content listed in the policy refer to false news.

    In addition, Facebook permitted white supremacist Paul Nehlen to run ads on its platform and allowed other pages to advertise posts that contain racist content.

    False content in Facebook ads

    A fake news Facebook network run by the website Right Wing News (rwnofficial.com) has posted multiple ads containing links with false news or misleading headlines to three Facebook pages: Daily Vine, Team President Donald J Trump, and America Rising. Daily Vine had false news in multiple ads, with five of them promoting debunked news headlines claiming George Soros was possibly facing prison, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) had called for John Kerry’s arrest, 412 Muslims in Michigan were arrested in a federal “bust,” Anthony Bourdain's death was related to Clinton operatives, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was “hauled out in handcuffs.”

    Other political ads paid for by Right Wing News contained fake news clickbait headlines which completely misrepresented stories. One headline stated that snipers stopped an attack on President Donald Trump during his July visit to Scotland. Another headline read “Hillary has hell to pay after Muslim fam found with secret info on 40 house members.” And an additional headline claimed that first lady Melania Trump had thrown out “Michelle [Obama]’s nasty bloated stash.” Examples of other headlines containing false information stated that Trump had to go to intensive care; that Trump banned reporters from the White House; that Bernie Sanders was “found guilty”; and that Trump “busted Obama’s entire administration in [a] massive coverup.” Facebook had previously removed four ads paid for by Right Wing News for violating the platform’s advertising policies, but it did not specify which policy was violated.

    A few political ads linked to the fake news site YourNewsWire. One ad featured a fake anti-LGBT story from YourNewsWire whose headline read “Pedophilia included as ‘sexual orientation’ on the new LGBT pride flag.” Another ad falsely claimed that an FBI official who “exposed Clinton’s ‘Fast & Furious’ cover up” was murdered.

    Conspiracy theories in Facebook ads

    Far-right conspiracy theories were also featured in some paid political ads. Facebook allowed multiple ads promoting pages dedicated to the QAnon conspiracy theory, some which were later taken down for running political content without a “paid for by” label. Other paid ads, including one from the Constitution Party of Florida, pushed QAnon claims. And two other pages promoted QAnon merchandise on political ads. Conspiracy theories related to Pizzagate and the murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich were also pushed through Facebook’s paid ads. One page affiliated with the 9/11 truth movement paid for five ads on Facebook (which were later taken down by Facebook for containing political content and not having a “paid for by” label), all five of which spread false conspiratorial claims about 9/11. Anti-vaccine conspiracy theories also run rampant on Facebook ads, posted by anti-vaxxer pages World Mercury Project, Stop Mandatory Vaccinations, and others.

    A white supremacist running Facebook ads

    Facebook has also permitted ads that promote white supremacists. The white supremacist Paul Nehlen, who was banned from Twitter and even the alt-right platform Gab, posted 18 paid political ads on Facebook boosting his primary challenge against Paul Ryan (R-WI). Most ads talked about his candidacy and campaign events. However, in one ad, Nehlen linked to the website of white supremacist and 2017 Unite The Right rally participant Christopher Cantwell and called Democrats the “champions” of “homosexuality” and “transgenderism.” Another advertisement attacked transgender people and included a meme from the anti-LGBT extremist The Activist Mommy.

    A Qanon political ad posted by the satire Facebook page The Levitical Society was originally included in this article. This post has been updated for clarity.​

  • At Senate hearing about election interference, tech companies prove they won't do a damn thing unless they are forced

    Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg testified before the Senate intelligence committee this morning. Here’s what you need to know.

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN

    This morning, the Senate intelligence committee questioned Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on Russian interference in the 2016 election. The hearing was the culmination of a two-year investigation into Russian election interference by the committee and Congress’ best opportunity to publicly hold Facebook and Twitter accountable for their role in allowing Russian operatives to game their platforms to target Americans with propaganda. As Angelo Carusone said earlier: “The tech industry’s failure to grapple with its roles in allowing -- and sometimes even enabling -- the fake news crisis and foreign interference in American elections is a national security crisis.” Today Americans had the opportunity to hear from Sandberg and Dorsey directly what Facebook and Twitter have done to protect them since 2016.

    The first time tech executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google testified before the Senate intelligence committee last year, committee members took a hostile posture. Committee chair Richard Burr (R-NC) and vice chair Mark Warner (D-VA) both scolded Facebook, Twitter, and Google for not taking election interference or the fact that their platforms were weaponized by foreign propagandists, seriously. At one point, Warner, frustrated by how little the tech companies claimed to know about what was happening on their own platforms said, “Candidly, your companies know more about Americans, in many ways, than the United States government does. The idea that you had no idea any of this was happening strains my credibility.”

    Ten months later, as I watched Dorsey and Sandberg testify before the committee, it felt like relations had thawed -- perhaps not with Google, who refused to send its CEO and instead was represented by an empty chair, but certainly with Facebook and Twitter. Members of the committee continued to ask tough questions and press Dorsey and Sandberg when they weren’t forthcoming, but the atmosphere had changed. I get the sense that after nearly a year of conversations and hearings, the working relationship is perhaps in a better place.

    Of course the tech companies have taken a beating in the press since that first hearing. We’ve since learned that Russian trolls got tens of thousands of Americans to RSVP for actual local events via Facebook. Americans have now seen the thousands of ads and organic content that Russian propagandists deployed on Facebook. Conspiracy theories about the Parkland shooting survivors, most of whom were still minors, spread like wildfire on social media. News broke that Cambridge Analytica had breached data of at least 50 million Facebook users. Russia is still interfering in our political conversation, and, Iran is now gaming the platforms as well.

    This morning’s hearing was probably the last time we’ll hear from the tech companies or the committee before the midterm election. Here’s what we’ve learned (and what we still don’t know):

    Promises made, promises kept?

    Facebook and Twitter made a lot of promises to the committee in the 2017 hearing. Facebook and Twitter both promised to change their ad policies, enhance user safety, build better teams and tools to curb malicious activity, better collaborate with law enforcement and one another, and communicate more transparently with the public.

    How’d they do?

    • Updated ads policy. Both Facebook and Twitter have announced new political and issue ad policies. Both companies have also announced their support for the Honest Ads Act. During the hearing, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) asked Facebook specifically about voter suppression ads which both Russia and the Trump campaign used in 2016. Sandberg said that in the future, this kind of targeting would not be allowed, though she didn’t specify if she was talking about just foreign actors or American political campaigns as well.

    • User safety. Perhaps the most telling moment of the hearing was Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) asked Sandberg about the real harm done when real people (not just fake accounts) intentionally spread conspiracy theories. Sandberg’s solution, rather than removing the incendiary content, was to have third-party fact-checkers look at potentially incorrect content because, according to her, Facebook isn’t the arbiter of truth, mark the content as false, warn users before they share the content and  present users with “alternative facts.”

    • Build better teams and tools to curb malicious activity.  In her opening statement, Sandberg said: “We’re investing heavily in people and technology to keep our community safe and keep our service secure. This includes using artificial intelligence to help find bad content and locate bad actors. We’re shutting down fake accounts and reducing the spread of false news. We’ve put in place new ad transparency policies, ad content restrictions, and documentation requirements for political ad buyers. We’re getting better at anticipating risks and taking a broader view of our responsibilities. And we’re working closely with law enforcement and our industry peers to share information and make progress together.” Dorsey also highlighted Twitter’s progress in his opening statement, saying: “We‘ve made significant progress recently on tactical solutions like identification of many forms of manipulation intending to artificially amplify information, more transparency around who buys ads and how they are targeted, and challenging suspicious logins and account creation.”

    • Better collaboration with law enforcement and with one another. Committee members asked Dorsey and Sandberg about this multiple times during the hearing. Both agreed that when it came to American security, Twitter and Facebook weren’t in competition and collaborated frequently. They also expressed a good relationship with law enforcement agencies, though Dorsey complained more than once about having too many points of contact.

    • Communicate more transparently to the public. Committee members pressed both Dorsey and Sandberg to be more transparent. Warner asked Dorsey if Twitter users have a right to know if the account they’re interacting with is a bot. Dorsey agreed to this, adding the caveat that “as far as we can detect them.”  Warner suggested to Sandberg that most of Facebook’s users don’t know what data Facebook has on them or how that data is used. Further, Warner pressed Sandberg, asking if users had a right to know how much their data was worth to Facebook. Wyden pointed out that data privacy is a national security issue as Russians used our own data to target us, saying, “Personal data is now the weapon of choice for political influence campaigns.” Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) asked Dorsey if Twitter had done enough to disclose to users that they were exposed to IRA propaganda, which Dorsey admitted the platform had not yet done enough.

    Questions still outstanding

    For every question Sandberg and Dorsey answered during the hearing, there were plenty that they couldn’t or wouldn’t answer. Most of the time, they promised to follow-up with the committee but here’s what we still don’t know and won’t likely get an answer to before the 2018 elections:

    • What are the tech companies doing to prepare for “deepfake” video and audio? Sen. Angus King (I-ME) asked if the companies were prepared to combat “deepfake” videos and audios, content that is digitally manipulated to look and sound extremely real. Neither Sandberg nor Dorsey had a good answer, which is worrisome given that “deepfake” audio and video are just around the corner.

    • Are the tech companies keeping an archive of suspended and removed accounts and will make this archive available to researchers and/or the general public? Both Sens. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and James Lankford (R-OK) asked about this. which is an important question, especially for academic researchers. Neither Sandberg nor Dorsey had a clear answer.

    • Anything to be done with the selling of opioids online? This question came from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) who also asked Sandberg and Dorsey if their companies bore and moral responsibility for deaths caused by opioid sales on social media.

    • How much did tech companies profit from Russian propaganda? Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) has asked Facebook this question repeatedly both during intelligence and judiciary committee hearings. The most follow-up she’s received from Facebook is that the number is “immaterial.”

    What happens next?

    Burr and Warner generally close these hearings by previewing what happens next. This time there was no such preview. Given that the election is almost two months away, that’s a bit unsettling. But the reality is that with the current makeup in Congress (and the executive branch), the government isn’t going to do anything else to protect Americans. No legislation will be passed, and if social media companies are called to testify before the House again anytime soon, it will likely be another circus hearing devoted to the right’s pet issue of social media censorship. On the Senate’s part, however, holding tech companies accountable and producing reports is about as much as the intelligence committee can do right now.

    Facebook, Twitter, and the absentee Google left today's hearing with questions unresolved and problems nowhere near fixed. Beyond the Senate Intelligence Committee asking pertinent questions, Congress has shown no interest in holding social media companies to account for those issues that remain outstanding.

  • Angelo Carusone: The tech industry’s failure with the fake news crisis and foreign interference in American elections is a national security crisis

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    This morning, the Senate Intelligence Committee questioned Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on Russian interference in the 2016 election. The House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee are scheduled to question Dorsey about anti-conservative bias on Twitter.

    On the Senate intelligence committee hearing, Media Matters’ President Angelo Carusone explained:

    The tech industry’s failure to grapple with its roles in allowing -- and sometimes even enabling -- the fake news crisis and foreign interference in American elections is a national security crisis. The Senate intelligence committee is currently our best hope for getting some insight into the steps that tech companies have taken to address known problems. The committee is at least trying.  

    On balance, committee members have treated this issue with the gravity it warrants and have worked to give the public actionable information about election interference and manipulation of the information ecosystem.

    It’s been two years though since the fake news crisis of 2016 -- and for the committee to keep its passing grade, it’s going to need to put more pressure on these platforms to not only address the problems we know about, but to start focusing on preventing the next fake news crisis that will be fueled by synthetic video and synthetic audio.

    On the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, Carusone added:

    In contrast to their Senate colleagues, who are at least trying to stay focused on this national security crisis, House Energy and Commerce Committee has turned its inquiry into an embarrassing partisan mess steeped in conspiracy theories and right-wing chicanery. House Republicans don’t seem at all concerned with understanding and preventing foreign interference and instead are more concerned with helping Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, work the refs so that they can cheat the system like they did in 2016.

    These hearings should be focused on things that we know are real, like foreign intervention, bots, algorithmic manipulations and other cheating -- where a lot more needs to be done in order to neutralize those threats.

    In 2016, right-wing efforts to game the refs led Facebook to make significant changes its trending topics section that ended up greatly contributing to amplification of fake news as well as changes to its ad approval rules that helped the Trump campaign execute an aggressive voter suppression campaign. And baseless cries of bias no doubt contributed to Twitter’s inconsistent policy enforcement and inadequate response to its climate of harassment. So, Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee working hand-in-hand with right-wing political activities to help work the refs is alarming and worthy of scorn.

    Functioning democracy is actually at stake. Neither Twitter nor Congress should be wasting its time with this baseless and partisan bullshit.

    Previously:

    Executives from Twitter and Facebook are testifying before Congress. Here’s what you need to know.

    Facebook is fueling far-right extremism -- and profiting off of it

    Tech leaders are appearing before Congress. Here are the conspiracy theories that might come up.

  • Facebook is fueling far-right extremism -- and profiting off of it

    Blog ››› ››› NATALIE MARTINEZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Over the past month, Facebook has drawn international attention for its slow response to hate speech and fake news that helped fuel the genocide of the ethno-religious Rohingya minority in Myanmar; for the correlation found in Germany between Facebook usage and hate crimes against refugees; and for the fake news that has gone viral on the Facebook subsidiary WhatsApp and led to deadly attacks in India.

    But, in the U.S., the criticisms of the social media giant that have dominated media coverage have dealt with baseless claims of censorship targeting conservatives. In a July study, Media Matters showed that the highest performing political content actually comes from right-leaning pages. And a sample of pages we identified as regularly pushing right-wing memes had the highest engagement numbers overall, boasting more than twice the weekly interactions of nonpartisan political news pages.

    In another recent study, Media Matters tracked narratives pushed by these right-wing meme pages and found that they often use false news and extremist rhetoric to push smears against immigrants and advocate for laws that negatively affect minorities. Facebook users who subscribe to these pages are being fed recycled -- and bigoted-- talking points, including that immigrants are taking government dollars from children and veterans; President Donald Trump’s inhumane immigration policies are part of an anti-Trump conspiracy; and racist voter ID laws are the solution to supposed mass voter fraud. The collective followership of these pages is in the hundreds of millions, and based on top comments to their right-wing meme posts, there appears to be a feedback loop in which commenters echo the language they see in the posts.

    Every now and then, Facebook will take down a particularly detestable piece of right-wing content, like a meme that says Muslims shouldn’t be allowed in Congress, or one with a no symbol over the word “Islam.” But Facebook’s content policies fail to address the way individual posts contribute to a larger, violent narrative. In a study tackling content posted by right-wing meme pages, Media Matters found a subset of anti-immigrant memes that were especially vicious. These memes go viral about once a month on some of the most popular right-wing meme pages; they ask their followers if they support militarizing the border and shooting unarmed undocumented immigrants who are trying to cross. The top reponses on these types of anti-immigrant posts supported shooting undocumented immigrants, and most referenced a cultural “invasion” and tied undocumented people to “welfare” programs. These commenters were borrowing language frequently used by right-wing meme pages and using that wording to justify the cold-blooded murder of undocumented immigrants out of fear they would use government benefits.

    Facebook sometimes removes bad actors following specific backlash over a specific page or individual. But the tech platform does nothing to address extremist pages operating as coordinated networks, acting in tandem to amplify their reach. In our recent meme page study, Media Matters mapped out some networks of meme pages and groups run by fake news outlets and far-right clickbait sites. These sites depend on Facebook for online traffic, and they rely on viral meme content to boost their page visibility. Back in January, Facebook took down the official page of the racist fake news site Freedom Daily but left all the other pages in Freedom Daily’s network untouched. The people behind Freedom Daily (freedomdaily.com) seemingly made two clone sites, freedom-daily.com (which is no longer active) and mpolitical.com, which they continued linking to on the Facebook pages they used to promote Freedom Daily before. By April, the Facebook pages that were channeling traffic to freedomdaily.com by linking to it in 2017 were now linking to a new racist fake news site, rwnoffcial.com. What this example shows is that even when a page was banned from Facebook, its allied network of pages was able to direct traffic to an entirely new website in a matter of months.

    It isn’t a coincidence that Facebook’s content moderation process is ineffective when it comes to moderating these extremist narratives. Most of Facebook’s responses to the spread of hate and violent fake news focus on individual posts encouraging violence, rather than on coordinated networks of bad actors driving long-term propaganda narratives. Even when Facebook takes down an individual post, the removal usually doesn’t affect the status or visibility of the page that posted it. Facebook doesn’t have a financial incentive to take down popular extremist networks pushing anti-immigrant, racist content. These pages aren’t a problem for Facebook; they’re a revenue stream. These pages and groups keep a large online community of President Donald Trump supporters engaged on the tech platform, where they consume and spread extremist content on their timelines (while clicking on ads and viewing content that Facebook gets paid to show). Simultaneously, Facebook is crucial to the business models of right-wing meme pages, as they push monetized content via racist clickbait, fake news sites, and online stores. Facebook isn’t just giving the far-right a soapbox to reach conservative communities; it’s also directly profiting from hate speech and extremist conspiracies.

  • Tech leaders are appearing before Congress. Here are the conspiracy theories that might come up.

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey are scheduled to testify on September 5 before the Senate intelligence committee to discuss how foreign actors have used their platforms for information warfare operations (Google has been invited but refused to send its CEO). Dorsey will also testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee later that day to address Twitter’s algorithms and content monitoring.

    It is likely that the hearings will feature a number of censorship-related conspiracy theories since members of Congress have drawn on debunked right-wing media narratives during previous committee hearings. Such theories are not only baseless, but also distract the platforms from dealing with the actual problems they face, such as disinformation, data privacy, and user safety from hate speech and targeted harassment. President Donald Trump has already invoked some of the false narratives to threaten the tech platforms with possible anti-trust action. Here are some of those conspiracy theories.

    The claim that Facebook is censoring conservatives such as Diamond and Silk

    For months, right-wing media figures have pushed the baseless claim that Facebook is systematically targeting and suppressing conservative content. Fox News has also hosted multiple Republican officials to push the claim. Most prominently, conservative media have promoted the censorship claims from YouTube personalities Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, who are known as Diamond and Silk. Even though CrowdTangle data showed interactions on Diamond and Silk’s page were steady or on the rise at the time of the claim, the House judiciary committee had a hearing giving credence to the duo’s unsubstantiated claim. Facebook has also caved to conservative pressure and launched a review headed by former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) -- since slated to replace the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) -- to look into the allegations.

    The claim is false: A Media Matters review of hundreds of major political pages found that left-leaning and right-leaning pages have roughly equal engagements and that right-leaning pages received more engagement than other political pages. Conservative meme pages are also some of the best performing pages on the platform.

    The allegation that Twitter is “shadowbanning” conservatives

    Conservative media figures have claimed that Twitter has “shadowbanned” right-wing figures on its platform, by which they mean that Twitter is limiting the visibility of their tweets on the basis of their ideology (some outlets have also featured Diamond and Silk claiming Twitter also targeted them). Trump has echoed the claim, tweeting that the site is “‘SHADOW BANNING’ prominent Republicans” and threatening the platform with government action.

    Twitter denied “shadowbanning” people and explained some issues had to do with auto suggestions in its search results, which it fixed. The site has also launched an initiative to down-rank content that “detracts from healthy public conversation” and does not determine that based on ideology. Dorsey also plans to tell Congress that Twitter analyzed House and Senate accounts over a month-long span and found “no statistically significant difference between the number of times a Tweet by a Democrat is viewed versus a Tweet by a Republican.”

    The claim that Google is biased against pro-Trump news and conservative content

    Right-wing media figures have repeatedly claimed that Google has targeted conservative and pro-Trump content, using as evidence instances in which the platform accidentally used inaccurate information about Republicans in its knowledge panels (a section on the top of the search page that quickly summarizes basic information on search queries). In late August, Trump joined the fray by promoting an extremely dubious PJ Media study pushed by Fox Business host Lou Dobbs claiming that Google News was promoting “left-wing” outlets when users searched for news about Trump. (Dobbs also hosted Diamond and Silk, who attacked Google in reaction to the study.)

    As Media Matters’ Matt Gertz pointed out, the PJ Media study is based on an absurd methodology and, by its author’s own admission, is not a “scientific study” but a compilation of “anecdotal results.”

    The allegation that Google refused to promote Trump’s State of the Union addresses

    On August 29, Trump tweeted a video that falsely claimed that while Google had linked to livestreams of former President Barack Obama’s State of the Union addresses the day they happened, the tech giant had failed to feature Trump’s addresses.

    The claim didn’t stand up to scrutiny: Some pages on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine showed that Trump’s State of the Union speech had been linked to on Google. The search engine also rebutted the claim in a statement. Nonetheless, multiple pro-Trump media figures ran with the false claim.