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  • Right-wing trolls held a panel to complain about their declining traffic rates since Trump was elected

    A who's who of the dregs of the internet gathered for a pity party about how they're all failing

    Blog ››› ››› CRISTINA LóPEZ G.


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Following declining traffic rates on their websites, an assortment of conspiracy theorists, hoax peddlers, anti-Muslim bigots, partisan activists, and pro-Trump media figures -- who depend on social media to broadcast their messages and profit from their audiences -- convened a panel in Washington, D.C., to claim tech giants like Google, Twitter, and Facebook are “shadow-banning” and censoring them for being conservative and supporting President Donald Trump.

    The panel on Social Media Neutrality, put together on February 6 by The Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft, featured Right Side Broadcasting Network's (RSBN) Margaret Howell, anti-Muslim bigot Pamela Geller, software developer Marlene Jaeckel, and The People's Cube's Oleg Atbashian -- whose site’s content has triggered the Defense Department’s flags for hate and racism. Fox News regular Michelle Malkin and self-proclaimed “guerrilla journalist” (but actual partisan hack) James O'Keefe also made video appearances.

    The participants were united in their claim that, based on their declining traffic rates since after the election, Facebook, Twitter, and Google must be silencing or "shadow-banning" them. A "shadow-ban" refers to when users are blocked from sharing content to an online community, but can’t tell they have been banned. Hoft took issue with digital platforms warning users that his website contains “disputed articles,” even though his site has a lengthy record of publishing false information.

    After expressing her admiration for conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ programming at Infowars, RSBN’s Howell accused Media Matters of “orchestrat[ing] a hit” against RSBN’s YouTube channel and being “in cahoots” with tech giants, claiming a Media Matters piece was the reason Facebook removed RSBN’s content for violating terms of service without clarifying which terms of service the platform had considered violated. She also claimed YouTube started censoring RSBN’s videos in the search results and marking videos as “not suitable for most advertisers.” RSBN, according to Howell, was born in reaction to then-candidate Trump’s (false) narrative that mainstream media never showed the crowds at his rallies and twisted his statements out of context. RSBN is also the same network that was once comfortable hiring former Infowars reporter Joe Biggs to host one of its shows, despite Biggs’ awful history of trivializing date rape or encouraging violence against transgender people.

    Both Michelle Malkin and Pamela Geller accused social media companies of censoring their platforms, which they’ve used to post anti-Muslim content. Malkin and Geller frequently appear on Fox News to malign entire Muslim communities or demean undocumented immigrants. Geller also accused media and tech companies of removing content critical of Islam because Sharia law, according to her, mandates that Islam not be criticized.

    Another panelist, Marlene Jaeckel, a software engineer and self-proclaimed “anti-feminist,” claimed to have been ostracized from Silicon Valley’s female tech groups because of her outspoken support for former Google software engineer James Damore. Damore was fired for writing a 10-page internal memo that Google’s CEO said “advanc[ed] harmful gender stereotypes.” She warned against the dangers of the biases Amazon’s Alexa and other home digital assistants could be giving to children, a theme that has occupied the minds of others on the far-right.

    As evident by some speakers’ remarks at the panel, at least some of these right-wing figures are breaking their loyalty to free market capitalism to call for government regulations to stop the companies from removing their content when it violates the companies’ terms of service. However, what they see as the unbridled exercise of their opinions is also what has made it necessary for Twitter, Facebook, and Google to update and revise their terms of service in order to combat fake news and protect its users against extremism, hate speech, and online harassment.

    Political allies of these far-right personalities are also helping them advance their conservative victimhood narrative. For example, in January, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) seemingly used O’Keefe’s undercover videos against Twitter (apparently ignoring his long history of deceptive editing and pathetic self-own episodes) to make serious accusations against the social media platform of banning conservatives (Cruz spent most of his time during a 2017 Senate hearing questioning social media companies about political bias).

    But these social media companies aren’t censoring conservative voices; they are taking action to combat fake news, Russian propaganda, hate speech, and online harassment and not always succeeding. Twitter has vowed to become “more aggressive” in monitoring racism and hate speech in its platform, but has admitted to making mistakes that often continue to enable extremists to smear immigrants and Muslims. YouTube -- which is owned by Google -- is struggling in its campaign to stop allowing content creators who spew hateful views from profiting from the platform, as it has allowed white supremacists to spread their messaging. And it was pressure from right-wing figures that reportedly pushed Facebook to “pull back from human oversight” of its Trending section and “delegate more power to shoddy algorithms,” which could have facilitated the flourishing of fake news and Russian propaganda. Similar right-wing pressure has also pushed Google to end a fact check display in its searches.

    While social media companies need to do a better job in crafting and enforcing policies that adequately respond to the challenges that harassment and misinformation present, ceding to the pressure of known harassers and proven misinformers should not be a path they follow.

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

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

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

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

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

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

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

    Playbook Screenshot

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

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

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

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

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

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

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

    The additional pages are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • A Facebook Trending topic page featured a fake news website that pushed Pizzagate

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    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.

  • "Native American" Facebook pages that push fake news are actually run out of Kosovo

    One of these pages is verified by Facebook

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

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

    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.

  • Russian trolls moved 340,000 Americans up the ladder of engagement

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    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.

  • How a major fake news network is preparing to evade Facebook's changes

    Blog ››› ››› NATALIE MARTINEZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    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.

  • For Zuck's sake

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN

    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

  • Some fake news websites have lost their Facebook verification

    While some fake news sites have lost Facebook verification, others are still verified

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    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.

  • Facebook’s news feed changes could elevate fake news while harming legitimate news outlets

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    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 Matters2017 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.

  • In urban Sweden and heartland America, xenophobic fake news looks the same

    Parallels, lessons learned, and enduring challenges for 2018

    Blog ››› ››› NINA MAST


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    In 2016, the story of a juvenile sex crime in an Idaho town swept through the national right-wing media ecosystem, picking up fabricated and lurid details along the way; several months later, the newly inaugurated President Donald Trump falsely suggested that a terrorist attack had recently taken place in Sweden, baffling the country. The two incidents, though seemingly unrelated, were spurred by the same sentiment: rabid anti-immigrant bias fueled by a sensationalistic, right-wing fake news ecosystem.

    In the global culture wars being waged online and in real life -- from Twin Falls, Idaho, to Malmo, Sweden -- influencers successfully mobilize anti-Muslim extremists, far-right media, and fake news websites in coordinated campaigns to promote misinformation. Their motivation may stem from an ideological agenda, the desire to create chaos, the intention to profit from emotionally resonant website content, or a combination of all three. And though misinformation is usually later debunked, the truth generally fails to travel as far or penetrate as deep as the original story, allowing a steady drumbeat of misinformation to continue. In the cases of Twin Falls and Sweden, this misinformation was fueled by xenophobia and sought to manipulate people into associating immigration and violent crime.

    The case of Twin Falls

    What's happening in Sweden?

    Lessons learned

    Response and enduring challenges

    The case of Twin Falls

    The Twin Falls, Idaho, case was the perfect story for anti-immigrant activists and far-right media. For the rest of us, it was the perfect example of how these anti-immigrant (and, specifically, anti-Muslim) activists and media seize on a story, elevating it, and twisting the facts to push their agenda.

    In June 2016, two refugee boys, ages 7 and 10, and a white 5-year-old girl were discovered partly clothed in the laundry room of an apartment complex. The incident was filmed on a cell phone borrowed from one of the boys’ older brother. A year later, the two boys and the older brother whose phone they used, were charged, pleaded guilty, and were sentenced.

    The incident had all the hallmarks of a crime story fit for the far-right echo chamber: sex crimes committed by refugees against white children in a historically white town with a growing Muslim population; a lack of sustained national media attention, creating an opening for accusations of a media cover-up; local politicians unable to get ahead of the narrative; and the backdrop of a highly politicized presidential election.

    Misinformation about the case was initially spurred by anti-Muslim activist groups, such as ACT for America and Refugee Resettlement Watch, as well as anti-Muslim media figures and various white nationalists who had been seemingly preparing for an incident to exploit in Twin Falls since a local paper reported in early 2015 that the city would soon be accepting Syrian refugees. After the incident, far-right websites including Breitbart, Infowars, The Drudge Report, The Rebel Media, WorldNetDaily, and fake news website MadWorldNews ran with the story, fabricating new details for which there was no evidence, including that the young boys were Syrian (they weren’t), held the girl at knifepoint (they didn’t), and their families celebrated afterward (they didn’t).

    In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Breitbart produced daily content on the story and sent its lead investigative reporter, Lee Stranahan, to investigate the “Muslim takeover” of the town. Infowars attempted to link the assault to Chobani, an immigrant-owned yogurt company that employs several hundred refugees, in a report headlined “Idaho Yogurt Maker Caught Importing Migrant Rapists.” Chobani sued Jones over the claim, and eventually settled; Jones issued an apology and a retraction. The story also bled into mainstream conservative news. Former Fox host Bill O’Reilly claimed the national media chose to not cover the local crime story because they “want[ed] to protect the refugee community.” O’Reilly pushed the narrative that sexual assault is committed frequently by Muslim refugees, saying, “the cultural aspect of the story is valid” in response to a Fox News contributor claiming that “we're seeing sexual assaults happen across the world from refugee populations” in Germany and Norway.

    The story showed how a local crime story can become a breeding ground for right-wing fabulation in service of pushing an anti-Muslim agenda. And, when repeated frequently enough, these narratives become coded, so that a single word or phrase can conjure a version of reality that may not exist at all.

    In the case of Twin Falls, many commenters explicitly extrapolated the mythical migrant crime wave of Europe to the American heartland. The Times quoted one American woman writing, “My girl is blond and blue-eyed. ... I am extremely worried about her safety.” It is therefore not surprising that the vast majority of Trump voters think illegal immigration is a very serious problem for the country, particularly in the context of crime. And thanks to “alt-right” outlets like Breitbart, which consistently use crime in Europe to fearmonger about immigration into the U.S., local crime can have policy implications across continents. As the so-called “alt-right” attempts to expand its reach internationally, these high-profile crime stories are powerful fodder.

    What's happening in Sweden?

    In February, Trump told rally attendees in Florida to “look at what’s happening last night in Sweden” while talking about cities where terror attacks have occurred. The statement baffled most Americans, as no terror attack had occurred in Sweden the night before; Trump later clarified that his comment was in reference to a Fox News segment about “immigrants & Sweden.” The segment, according to The Washington Post, was likely an interview with an American filmmaker who “has blamed refugees for what he says is a crime wave in Sweden.” His “documentary,” part of which was aired during the Fox segment, was deceptively edited and pushed debunked claims of a surge of refugee violence.

    If you gleaned your news about Sweden from far-right or conspiratorial websites, as many Americans do, Trump’s dog-whistle would have resonated clearly. The far-right sites have created a narrative that Sweden is the “rape capital of the world,” is in the throes of a cultural civil war, and that there are areas of the country so dangerous that even police don’t dare enter. As Media Matters and others have documented, influential far-right websites, white nationalists, right-leaning tabloids, fake news websites, and even more mainstream conservative outlets have cultivated an obsession with the mythical migrant crime wave in Sweden, publishing nearly daily content on the subject.

    What is happening in Sweden is, actually, nothing close to the hellscape far-right media attempts to portray. The country’s crime rate pales in comparison to the United States’, and while high levels of immigration have created social and economic anxieties for native Swedes and immigrants alike (anxieties driven in no small part by anti-Muslim activists), no data shows that immigration is causing such problems in the country.

    But these anti-immigrant narratives have created space for fabricated claims to fester. And in this ecosystem, as in the Twin Falls case, real stories can take on a life of their own. In December 2016, for example, Swedish local news outlet Kristianstadbladet reported that “new clientele” had been frequenting a church often visited by those experiencing homelessness and some people had desecrated the church pews. Despite a lack of information about who the new clientele were, Swedish hate site Fria Tider leapt to claim that it was a reference to refugees and they were the ones urinating, defecating, and masturbating in the church’s pews. MadWorld News, an American fake news website known for its anti-Muslim content, amplified the story in the United States, adding claims that “migrants scream Islamic chants and smash liquor bottles on the floor in an attempt to silence Christian worshippers from praying to God” and that “a migrant even tried to kidnap a child from a baptism ceremony.” The article was shared over 4,700 times. The story was also published on Focus News, a fake news website run by a 25-year-old Macedonian, and from there shared thousands of times in Macedonia, Georgia, and Kosovo. The story was fact-checked and debunked but by then the claim had already spread.

    Stories like these, driven by far-right media and anti-Muslim activists, helped lay the narrative foundation for Trump’s Sweden reference. After his statement, right-wing media, fake news websites, and at least one neo-Nazi website clamored to defend him, using his comment to amplify a crime narrative that, up until then, had sparked limited interest outside the far-right media landscape. And while online attention to the country peaked after Trump’s claim, his amplification of the contrived and bigoted narrative took it from the fringe to the mainstream and effectively primed a larger audience to believe that, even if nothing has happened in Sweden, it could.

    Sweden’s commitment to an open, democratic society is also a vulnerability. According to a late 2015 internal memo, Swedish police were instructed not to report externally the ethnic or national origin of suspected criminals. The decision, while an admirable attempt not to stoke racial tensions, has raised suspicion. Many far-right outlets perceived the move as an attempt to cover up what they deemed a migrant crime wave, and the controversy became so salient that the Swedish government had to respond. Now these same websites are targeting the Swedish government over its proposal to restrict the accessibility and distribution of personal sensitive data related to criminal offenses. Sweden’s open and progressive crime reporting practices that discourage unnecessary emphasis on people’s ethnicity or religion allow fake news purveyors to speculate on a suspected criminal’s ethnic background with impunity, as well as manufacture an inflated perception of criminality.

    Lessons learned

    These examples illustrate that in a politically and culturally charged media environment, completely fabricated stories packaged to look as if they were published by a reputable news agency and partially true stories sensationalized by ideological or bad-faith actors alike can spread with such a degree of virality that by the time the truth is reported and the fake news fact-checked, the damage is already done. The articles themselves are left uncorrected and continue to be shared and referred back to as cautionary tales of the supposed crime wave and general societal degradation spurred by Muslim immigration and refugee resettlement. They are exceedingly easy to manufacture and disseminate, but difficult to disprove until all facts are available, which can be months or years later.

    There is also evidence that Russian actors are attempting to sow political discord offline. In March, in the wake of Trump’s comments about alleged crime in Sweden, a Russian TV crew reportedly tried to pay young people in Sweden to riot on camera with the intention of portraying a nation roiled by violence. And a Facebook event called “Citizens before refugees,” which was created by what is now known to be a Russian actor, attempted to organize an anti-refugee rally in the town of Twin Falls, Idaho.

    It’s easy for mainstream news consumers to dismiss these reports as misinformation-filled rants by white supremacists and various far-right ideologues (which they are), but in the aggregate, they act as a powerful rallying cry for an entire swath of Americans who yearn to see their deep-seated cultural and economic anxieties rationalized, their biases validated.

    What's happening in Sweden is what's happening in sleepy towns in the United States. The ideologies, tactics, and goals are all the same. There will be another case like the Twin Falls assault and another story like that of the Swedish church, and in the context of a media landscape eager to exploit these situations and a presidential administration that encourages xenophobia and has deep ties to the far-right and a burgeoning fake news ecosystem, the impact of the next viral story could be much worse.

    Responses and enduring challenges

    In order to confront the problem of anti-immigrant sentiment flamed by misinformation and fake news, mainstream media and governments alike need to be realistic about the challenges and possible solutions. In a recent report released by the Swedish government, the authors noted, “One important question is where the limit is for which expressions are harmful to society in large and its citizens.” It’s a question that may never have a perfect answer, but seeking to understand the ecosystem and its players, ideologies, relationships, and methods is a good start.

    In that report, which focused on “white hatred,” experts outlined several far-right commentators and websites (many of which are American), suggesting that these groups be researched further in an effort to counter their racist, anti-immigrant, anti-feminist ideology. The report also detailed the role of tech companies like Facebook and Google in limiting distribution of their content online. Sweden has also ramped up its efforts to fight fake news through elementary school media literacy programs, news outlet initiatives, and bilateral law enforcement partnerships, including with the country’s Scandinavian neighbors.  

    In the United States, the commitment to identifying and solving the problem has been far less sustained. Trump himself has regularly pushed anti-Muslim sentiment and misinformation, and he’s known to get his information from the types of outlets that push bigoted misinformation. The administration has also decided that fake news is actually news that is unfavorable to it, and it’s officials have on multiple occasions pushed fabricated stories, and Trump himself has told over 100 lies in less than one year in office.

    The antagonistic attitude that this administration has taken means the burden for combating anti-immigrant sentiment and fake news largely falls on media, local authorities, and other institutions. For example, fake news in Twin Falls may have been better combatted had the local authorities been more engaged in getting out accurate information. A local Twin Falls newspaper editor told The New York Times’ Caitlin Dickerson that, while local reporters attempted to correct falsehoods about the story, city officials refused to write guest editorials doing the same out of fear of political backlash:

    “Behind closed doors, they would all tell you they were pro-refugee, and we wanted them to step forward and make that declaration in a public arena, and it just never really happened,” he told me. “That was frustrating to us especially at the beginning because it really felt like the newspaper was out there all alone.” He continued: “There were days where we felt like, Godammit, what are we doing here? We write a story and it’s going to reach 50,000 people. Breitbart writes a story and it’s going to reach 2, 3, 4, 5, 10 million people. What kind of a voice do we have in this debate?”

    In the era of “alternative facts,” American news outlets and their fact-checking arms have stepped up their game, but the U.S. would be smart to develop interdisciplinary domestic and international partnerships, as Sweden has. This year, four states passed bills mandating media literacy be integrated into school curricula, and others are considering following suit. It would be worth considering Sweden’s dedicated media literacy program, taught to teens and young adults, as a model.

    A translation in this post has been updated for accuracy.

  • Misinformer of the Year: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

    Facebook's "personalized newspaper" became a global clearinghouse for misinformation

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    In late August, as Hurricane Harvey crashed through the Texas coastline, millions of Americans searching for news on the crisis were instead exposed to a toxic slurry of fabrications. Fake news articles with headlines like “Black Lives Matter Thugs Blocking Emergency Crews From Reaching Hurricane Victims” and “Hurricane Victims Storm And Occupy Texas Mosque Who Refused To Help Christians” went viral on Facebook, spreading disinformation that encouraged readers to think the worst about their fellow citizens.

    When Facebook set up a crisis response page a month later -- following a mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada, that killed dozens and injured hundreds -- the company intended to provide a platform for users in the area to confirm they were safe and to help people across the country learn how to support the survivors and keep up to date on the events as they unfolded. But the page soon became a clearinghouse for hyperpartisan and fake news articles, including one which baselessly described the shooter as a “Trump-hating Rachel Maddow fan.”

    In Myanmar, an ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya minority population was aided by misinformation on Facebook, the only source of news for many people in the country. In India, The Washington Post reported, “false news stories have become a part of everyday life, exacerbating weather crises, increasing violence between castes and religions, and even affecting matters of public health.” In Indonesia, disinformation spread by social media stoked ethnic tensions and even triggered a riot in the capital of Jakarta.

    Throughout the year, countries from Kenya to Canada either fell prey to fake news efforts to influence their elections, or took steps they hoped would quell the sort of disinformation campaign that infected the 2016 U.S. presidential race.

    Last December, Media Matters dubbed the fake news infrastructure 2016’s Misinformer of the Year, our annual award for the media figure, news outlet, or organization which stands out for promoting conservative lies and smears in the U.S. media. We warned that the unique dangers to the information ecosystem meant “merely calling out the lies” would not suffice, and that “the objective now is to protect people from the lies.” We joined numerous experts and journalists in pointing to weaknesses in our nation’s information ecosystem, exposed by the presidential election and fueled by key decisions made by leading social media platforms.

    Twelve months later, too little has changed in the United States, and fake news has infected democracies around the world. Facebook has been central to the spread of disinformation, stalling and obfuscating rather than taking responsibility for its outsized impact.

    Media Matters is recognizing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as 2017’s Misinformer of the Year.

    He narrowly edges Larry Page, whose leadership of Google has produced similar failures in reining in misinformation. Other past recipients include the Center for Medical Progress (2015), George Will (2014), CBS News (2013), Rush Limbaugh (2012), Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. (2011), Sarah Palin (2010), Glenn Beck (2009), Sean Hannity (2008), ABC (2006), Chris Matthews (2005), and Bill O'Reilly (2004).

    Facebook is the most powerful force in journalism

    “Does Even Mark Zuckerberg Know What Facebook Is?” Max Read asked in an October profile for New York magazine. Rattling off statistics pointing to the dizzying reach and breadth of a site with two billion monthly active users, Read concluded that the social media platform Zuckerberg launched for his Harvard peers in 2004 “has grown so big, and become so totalizing, that we can’t really grasp it all at once.”

    Facebook’s sheer size and power make comparisons difficult. But Zuckerberg himself has defined at least one key role for the website. In 2013, he told reporters that the redesign of Facebook’s news feed was intended to “give everyone in the world the best personalized newspaper we can.” This strategy had obvious benefits for the company: If users treated the website as a news source, they would log on more frequently, stay longer, and view more advertisements.

    Zuckerberg achieved his goal. Forty five percent of U.S. adults now say they get news on Facebook, dominating all other social media platforms, and the percentage of people using the website for that purpose is rising. The website is the country’s largest single source of news, and indisputably its most powerful media company.

    That goal of becoming its users' personalized newspaper was assuredly in the best interest of Facebook. The company makes money due to its massive usership, so the value of any particular piece of content is in whether it keeps people engaged with the website. (Facebook reported in 2016 that users spend an average of 50 minutes per day on the platform.) But ultimately, Zuckerberg’s declaration showed that he had put his company at the center of the information ecosystem -- crucial in a democracy because of its role in setting public opinion -- but refused to be held accountable for the results.

    That failure to take responsibility exposes another key difference between Facebook and the media companies Zuckerberg said he wanted to ape. Newspapers face a wide variety of competitors, from other papers to radio, television, and digital news products. If a newspaper gains a reputation for publishing false information, or promoting extremist views, it risks losing subscribers and advertising dollars to more credible rivals and potentially going out of business. But Facebook is so popular that it has no real competitors in the space. For the foreseeable future, it will remain a leading force in the information ecosystem.

    Fake news, confirmation bias, and the news feed


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Facebook’s news feed is designed to give users exactly what they want. And that’s the problem.

    All content largely looks the same on the feed -- regardless of where it comes from or how credible it is -- and succeeds based on how many people share it. Facebook’s mysterious algorithm favors “content designed to generate either a sense of oversize delight or righteous outrage and go viral,” serving the website’s billions of users the types of posts they previously engaged with in order to keep people on the website.

    When it comes to political information, Facebook largely helps users seek out information that confirms their biases, with liberals and conservatives alike receiving news that they are likely to approve of and share.

    A wide range of would-be internet moguls -- everyone from Macedonian teenagers eager to make a quick buck to ideological true believers hoping to change the political system -- have sought to take advantage of this tendency. They have founded hyperpartisan ideological websites and churned out content, which they have then shared on associated Facebook pages. If the story is interesting enough, it goes viral, garnering user engagement that leads to the story popping up in more Facebook feeds. The site’s owners profit when readers click the Facebook story and are directed back to the hyperpartisan website, thereby driving up traffic numbers and helping boost advertising payouts. The more extreme the content, the more it is shared, and the more lucrative it becomes. Facebook did not create ideological echo chambers, but it has certainly amplified the effect to an unprecedented degree.

    Intentional fabrications packaged as legitimate news have become just another way for hyperpartisan websites to generate Facebook user engagement and cash in, launching outlandish lies into the mainstream. Users seem generally unable to differentiate between real and fake news, and as they see more and more conspiracy theories in their news feed, they become more willing to accept them.

    Facebook’s 2016 decision to bow to a conservative pressure campaign has accelerated this process. That May, a flimsy report claimed that conservative outlets and stories had been “blacklisted” by the Facebook employees who selected the stories featured in its Trending Topics news section, a feature that helps push stories viral. The notion that Facebook employees might be suppressing conservative news triggered an angry backlash from right-wing media outlets and Republican leaders, who declared that the site had a liberal bias. In an effort to defuse concerns, Zuckerberg and his top executives hosted representatives from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, Fox News, the Heritage Foundation, and other bastions of the right at Facebook’s headquarters. After hearing their grievances over a 90-minute meeting, Zuckerberg posted on Facebook that he took the concerns seriously and wanted to ensure that the community remained a “platform for all ideas.”

    While Facebook’s own internal investigation found “no evidence of systematic political bias” in the selection or prominence of stories featured in the Trending Topics section, the company announced the following week that its curators would no longer rely on a list of credible journalism outlets to help them determine whether a topic was newsworthy, thereby removing a key method of screening the credibility of stories. And in late August, as the presidential election entered its stretch run, Facebook fired its “news curators,” putting Trending Topics under the control of an algorithm. The company promised that removing the human element “allows our team to make fewer individual decisions about topics.” That’s true. But the algorithm promoted a slew of fabricated stories from bogus sources in the place of news articles from credible outlets.

    This confluence of factors -- users seeking information that confirms their biases, sites competing to give it to them, and a platform whose craven executives deliberately refused to take sides between truth and misinformation -- gave rise to the fake news ecosystem.

    The result is a flood of misinformation and conspiracy theories pouring into the news feeds of Facebook users around the world. Every new crisis seems to bring with it a new example of the dangerous hold Facebook has over the information ecosystem.

    Obfuscation and false starts for enforcement

    Zuckerberg resisted cracking down on fake news for as long as he possibly could. Days after the 2016 presidential election, he said it was “crazy” to suggest fake news on Facebook played a role in the outcome. After an uproar, he said that he took the problem “seriously” and was “committed to getting this right.” Seven months later, after using his control of more than 50 percent of Facebook shares to vote down a proposal for the company to publicly report on its fake news efforts, the CEO defended the company’s work. Zuckerberg said Facebook was disrupting the financial incentives for fake news websites, and he touted a new process by which third-party fact-checkers could review articles posted on the site and mark them as “disputed” for users. This combination of small-bore proposals, halting enforcement, and minimal transparency has characterized Zuckerberg’s approach to the problem.

    Under Facebook’s third-party fact-checking system, rolled out in March to much hype, the website’s users have the ability to flag individual stories as potential “false news.” A fact-checker from one of a handful of news outlets -- paid by Facebook and approved by the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, a non-partisan journalism think tank -- may then review the story, and, if the fact-checker deems it inaccurate, place an icon on the story that warns users it has been “disputed.”

    This is not a serious effort at impacting an information infrastructure encompassing two billion monthly users. It’s a fig leaf that Facebook is using to benefit from the shinier brands of the outlets it has enlisted in the effort, while creating a conflict of interest that limits the ability of those news organizations to scrutinize the company.  

    The program places the onus first on users to identify the false stories and then on a small group of professionals from third parties -- including The Associated Press, Snopes, ABC News and PolitiFact -- to take action. The sheer size of Facebook means the fact-checkers cannot hope to review even a tiny fraction of the fake news circulating on the website. The Guardian's reviews of the effort have found that it was unclear whether the flagging process actually impeded the spread of false information, as the “disputed” tag is often only added long after the story had already gone viral and other versions of the same story can circulate freely without the tag. The fact-checkers themselves have warned that it is impossible for them to tell how effective their work is because Facebook won’t share information about their impact.

    Zuckerberg’s happy talk about the company’s efforts to demonetize the fake news economy also continues to ring hollow. According to Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, this means the company is “making sure” that fake news sites “aren’t able to buy ads on our system.” It’s unclear whether that is true, since Facebook refuses to be transparent about what it’s doing. But whether the fake news sites buy Facebook ads or not, the same websites continue to benefit from the viral traffic that Facebook makes possible. They can even benefit from having their associated Facebook pages verified. (Facebook verifies pages for public figures, brands, and media outlets with a blue check mark to confirm it is “the authentic Page” or profile for the associated group or person, imbuing the page with what inevitably looks like a stamp of approval from the social media giant.)

    Facebook’s response to criticism of its political advertising standards has been more robust. During the 2016 presidential election, the company was complicit in what the Trump campaign acknowledged was a massive “voter suppression” effort. Trump’s digital team spent more than $70 million on Facebook advertising, churning out hundreds of thousands of microtargeted “dark” ads, which appeared only on the timelines of the target audience and did not include disclosures that they were paid for by the campaign. A hefty portion of those ads targeted voters from major Democratic demographics with negative messages about Hillary Clinton and was intended to dissuade them from going to the polls. Facebook employees embedded with the Trump team aided this effort, helping with targeting and ensuring the ads were approved through an automated system. But in October, the company received major blowback following the disclosure that Russian-bought ads were targeted using similar strategies. Facebook subsequently announced that in the future, election ads would be manually reviewed by an employee to ensure it meets the company’s standards. The company plans to require disclosure of who paid for political ads, and increase transparency by ensuring that users can view all ads a particular page had purchased. Those are meaningful steps, but Facebook should go further by making clear that the company opposes civil suppression and will instruct its employees not to approve ads intended for that purpose.   

    It’s notable, of course, that Facebook’s effort to curb abuse of its political advertising came only after U.S. senators unveiled legislation requiring stricter disclosure for online political ads. The company took action in order to preempt a meaningful federal response. With no such pressure on offer with regard to fake news, Facebook has been left to its own devices, responding only as needed to quiet public anger at its failures. At every step, experts have warned that Facebook’s efforts to push back against fake news have been insufficient and poorly implemented. The company is doing as little as it can get away with.

    What can be done?


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Hoaxes and disinformation have always been a part of human society, with each new generation enlisting the era’s dominant forms of mass communication in their service. But Facebook’s information ecosystem and news feed algorithm has proven particularly ripe for abuse, allowing fake news purveyors to game the system and deceive the public. Those bad actors know that user engagement is the major component in ensuring virality, and have engineered their content with that in mind, leading to a system where Facebook turbocharges false content from disreputable sources.

    Facebook could fight back against fake news by including an authority component in its algorithm, ensuring that articles from more credible outlets have a better chance of virality than ones from less credible ones. Facebook’s algorithm should recognize that real news outlets like The New York Times or CNN are more credible than websites that serve up deliberate fabrications, and respond accordingly, the way Google’s (admittedly imperfect) search engine does.

    This will also require Facebook to stop conveying authority on users that do not deserve it by stripping verified tags from pages that regularly traffic in fake news.

    Facebook also has a serious problem with bots: software that mimics human behavior and cheats the company’s algorithm, creating fake engagement and sending stories viral. The company will need to step up its efforts to identify algorithmic anomalies caused by these bots, and develop heightened countermeasures, which should include minimizing the impact on users by known bots.

    If Facebook can find a way to change its algorithm to avoid clickbait, as it has claimed, it should be able to do the same to limit the influence of websites that regularly produce fabrications.

    But algorithms alone won’t be enough to solve the problem. Facebook announced it would hire 1,000 people to review and remove Facebook ads that don’t meet its standards. So why hasn’t Zuckerberg done something similar to combat fake news? Why won’t Facebook, as one of the third-party fact-checkers suggested in an interview with The Guardian, hire “armies of moderators and their own fact-checkers” to solve that problem?

    Given the collapse of the news industry over the last decade, there is no shortage of journalists with experience at verifying information and debunking falsehoods. Facebook could hire thousands of them; train them; give them the actual data that they need to determine whether they are effective and ensure that their rulings impact the ability of individual stories to go viral; and penalize websites, associated Facebook pages, and website networks for repeat offenses.

    If Zuckerberg wants Facebook to be a “personalized newspaper,” he needs to take responsibility for being its editor in chief.

    There is a danger, of course, to having a single news outlet with that much power over the U.S. information ecosystem. But Facebook already has that power, though there are compelling arguments in favor of limiting it, either with government regulation or antitrust actions.

    What’s clear is that Facebook will only act under pressure. Earlier this month, The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine and regular publisher of misinformation, announced it had been approved to join Facebook’s fact-checking initiative. The magazine was founded by Bill Kristol, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle, and is owned by right-wing billionaire Philip Anschutz. Stephen Hayes, The Weekly Standard’s editor-in-chief and the author of The Connection: How al Qaeda's Collaboration with Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America, praised Facebook for the decision, telling The Guardian: “I think it’s a good move for [Facebook] to partner with conservative outlets that do real reporting and emphasize facts.” Conservatives, including those at The Weekly Standard, had previously criticized the initiative, claiming the mainstream news outlets and fact-checking organizations Facebook partnered with were actually liberal partisans. Facebook responded by trying to “appease all sides.”

    Nineteen months after Facebook’s CEO sat down with conservative leaders and responded to their concerns with steps that inadvertently strengthened the fake news infrastructure, his company remains more interested in bowing to conservative criticisms than stopping misinformation.


    The very people who helped build Facebook now warn that it is helping to tear the world apart.

    Founding President Sean Parker lamented “the unintended consequences of a network when it grows to a billion or 2 billion people” during a November event. “It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other,” he said. “It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains."

    Chamath Palihapitiya, who joined Facebook in 2007 and served as vice president for user growth at the company, said earlier this month that he regrets helping build up the platform: “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”

    Facebook’s current employees also worry about the damage the company is doing, according to an October The New York Times report detailing “growing concern among employees.” Last week, the Facebook’s director of research tried to allay some of these fears with a press release titled, “Hard Questions: Is Spending Time on Social Media Bad for Us."

    Mark Zuckerberg built a platform to connect people that has become an incredibly powerful tool to divide them with misinformation, and he’s facing increasing criticism for it. But he only ever seems interested in fixing the public relations problem, not the information one. That’s why he is 2017’s Misinformer of the Year.

  • We reviewed every fact check from Facebook's new partner The Weekly Standard. There is a lot of partisan opinion. 

    14 pieces are attacks on fact-checking institutions for perceived liberal bias. 17 are opinion columns that reach conservative conclusions, defend Republican politicians, or attack Democratic politicians. 

    Blog ››› ››› CRISTINA LóPEZ G.

    The Weekly Standard is the latest organization to be approved by Facebook to join its fact-checking initiative, despite its political bias, record of serial misinformation, attacks on nonpartisan fact-checking institutions, and dismal fact-checking track record.

    In December 2016, Facebook announced its plans for an initiative to partner with the journalism organization Poynter and with fact-checking organizations to help address the problem of fake news and hoaxes on its platform. These third-party fact-checkers would need to be vetted by Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) and would need to meet five principles: a commitment to nonpartisanship and fairness, a commitment to transparency of sources, a commitment to transparency of funding & organization, a commitment to transparency of methodology, and a commitment to open and honest corrections.

    After finding substantial fault in the Standard's fact-checking process, the ICFN verified it on the basis of just three weeks of new fact-checks that met it standards, despite Poynter's own three-month requirement and over the concerns of its own assessor. MMFA reviewed over 40 pieces of content tagged as fact-checks since early 2011 and found that:

    • Only 24 of the 43 pieces published on the Standard’s website categorized under the tags “fact check,” “fact checking,” and “Tws Fact Check” are actual fact checks.

    • 14 pieces are attacks on fact-checking institutions for perceived liberal bias.

    • 17 pieces are opinion columns that reach conservative conclusions, defend Republican politicians, or attack Democratic politicians.

    • One piece fact-checks a post from a website that describes itself as satirical.

    • One piece fact-checks a meme. Most of the websites the Standard took to task for sharing the meme noted the possibility that it was a hoax.

    • Only 12 pieces feature the byline of the Standard’s official fact-checker, Holmes Lybrand. Of those 12, only seven appear in the section that the Standard presents as its formal fact-checking operation (of those seven, it seems three were published within five minutes of each other).

    • One piece labeled a fact check was written by a Standard opinion writer.

    The Standard has a long record of misinformation and its catalogue of fact-check attempts are no exception; in his November 2017 analysis, the assigned Poynter assessor stated that he would recommend approval only “with several edits and revisions.” But the Standard’s Editor-in-Chief Stephen Hayes told The Guardian that the outlet considers its formal fact-checking operation to have started six months ago and that “the work really does speak for itself.”

    Hayes also touted the hiring of fact-checker Holmes Lybrand as proof of its fact-checking bona fides. As of this writing, Lybrand has published 12 pieces, only seven of which actually comply with IFCN’s requirement that fact-checks be archived on their own page. The rest can be found under its old “fact-checks” section alongside opinion columns.These hard-hitting pieces include a fact check of a claim it isn’t clear anyone was contesting, a non-answer ruling saying “it’s complicated” (in which the author also fails to disclose the conservative/libertarian leaning of one of the sources used for the analysis, the Pacific Legal Foundation), and a piece that included a correction for an inaccuracy.

    Lybrand’s previous fact-checking experience includes work at The Daily Caller News Foundation, where he directed much of his ammo at fact checking institutions and invoked a common right-wing talking point to criticize CNN for its use of a Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) hate-group map after a gunman claimed it as his inspiration for an attack. In addition, the description on Google for his personal website publicizes that he “presents conservative viewpoints on politics, culture, and current events.”


    Only one of these is the actual fact checks section

    Before its sudden interest in developing an actual methodology to correct misinformation, the Standard’s attitude toward fact-checking was very different. Its website tag “fact-check” houses a bulk of articles dating back to 2011 in which a popular theme of commentary is “fact-checkers are bad at their jobs.” At least 14 articles under this tag are criticisms of fact-checking organizations over perceived liberal bias. And, as if it’s already not hard enough to find the official “fact-checking vertical,” there’s also the wildly confusing existence of a third website tag called “fact checking,” housing more anti-fact-checker rants similar to those found under the “fact checks” tag, but not available there. The categorization fumble makes it clear that even the outlet itself has a hard time differentiating between its partisan and its purportedly objective content, raising the question of how a reader should know the difference.

    Facebook’s decision to include an explicitly partisan outlet like The Weekly Standard in its fact-checking fake news initiative shows that Facebook is more concerned with appeasing right-wing fury than with combating propaganda and fake news.

  • Facebook partners with conservative misinformer The Weekly Standard on fact-checking

    The Weekly Standard becomes the only partisan organization tasked with fact-checking for Facebook

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    Conservative news outlet The Weekly Standard has been approved by Facebook to partner in fact-checking "false news," a partnership that makes little sense given the outlet’s long history of making misleading claims, pushing extreme right-wing talking points, and publishing lies to bolster conservative arguments.

    The Weekly Standard’s history of publishing false claims on topics such as the 2012 attacks on diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, the Affordable Care Act, tax cuts, and the war in Iraq, among many others, raises doubts that Facebook is taking the challenge of fact-checking seriously.

    As The Guardian reports, The Weekly Standard is the first “explicitly partisan” outlet to partner with Facebook in their effort to fact-check fake news. The decision by Facebook raises concerns over the decision to give a conservative opinion outlet with a history of misinformation unearned influence over the fact-checking process. From the December 6 report:

    A conservative news organization has been approved to partner with Facebook to fact-check false news, drawing criticisms that the social media company is caving to rightwing pressures and collaborating with a publication that has previously spread propaganda.

    The Weekly Standard, a conservative opinion magazine, said it is joining a fact-checking initiative that Facebook launched last year aimed at debunking fake news on the site with the help of outside journalists. The Weekly Standard will be the first right-leaning news organization and explicitly partisan group to do fact-checks for Facebook, prompting backlash from progressive organizations, who have argued that the magazine has a history of publishing questionable content.

    [...]

    “I’m really disheartened and disturbed by this,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, a progressive watchdog group that published numerous criticisms of the Weekly Standard after the partnership was first rumored in October. “They have described themselves as an opinion magazine. They are supposed to be thought leaders.”

    Calling the magazine a “serial misinformer”, Media Matters cited the Weekly Standard’s role in pushing false and misleading claims about Obamacare, Hillary Clinton and other political stories.