Everything Facebook’s Doing to Combat Fake News is Only Making the Problem Worse

I’m a nobody, therefore I never expect to be face to face with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to discuss the best way his company can go about combating the epidemic of fake news that gets posted and shared on social media. In particular, on Facebook and Twitter where websites created specifically to spread fake news, with the help of a lot of bots and fake profiles, have made spreading blatant misinformation a powerful weapon to use against an opponent as well as a very profitable enterprise for many.

That said, it seems whoever Zuckerberg does have advising him on how to fight the spread of fake news on Facebook doesn’t have a clue what they’re doing. Nearly everything I’ve seen Facebook do over the years to fight fake news, especially here lately, is only making the problem much worse.

The Infamous Facebook Algorithm and its relation to Facebook Pages:

For those of you who might not know, Facebook has a magical algorithm that — at least according to Facebook — is supposed to show you more of what you want to see. The supposed idea behind this is that most people follow so many things on Facebook that if they were to be shown posts from every single person, place, or thing they follow, they would be overwhelmed with thousands of posts a day.

Okay, that makes sense — in theory.

The problem with algorithms is that they can be manipulated by pretty much anybody who gets adept at understanding how they seem to work. Seeing as Facebook’s algorithm relies heavily upon the user’s interaction with posts, many Facebook Pages (the main way websites distribute their content on the site) began gearing their posts not based on quality, but rather based on what they felt would get the most Likes/Shares/Comments and stay in newsfeeds longer.

This isn’t limited to politics or news on Facebook, either, and the problems run so deep that they’re compounded by other problems. In an article that’s worth checking out on Splitsider.com, Sarah Aswell points out:

The whole story is basically that Facebook gets so much traffic that they started convincing publishers to post things on Facebook. For a long time, that was fine. People posted things on Facebook, then you would click those links and go to their websites. But then, gradually, Facebook started exerting more and more control of what was being seen, to the point that they, not our website, essentially became the main publishers of everyone’s content. Today, there’s no reason to go to a comedy website that has a video if that video is just right on Facebook. And that would be fine if Facebook compensated those companies for the ad revenue that was generated from those videos, but because Facebook does not pay publishers, there quickly became no money in making high-quality content for the internet.

In these situations recently, like with Cracked, people get mad at the management and at the companies. I’m a labor dude, I’m a proud member of the WGAE, and I’m more than happy to get mad at management about something, but it’s increasingly clear that that’s not the problem. The problem is that Facebook is our editor and our boss. They decide what is successful and what isn’t successful via seemingly meaningless metrics. They hide behind algorithms that they change constantly. And it seems to me that they are not favoring things that are high-quality — they are favoring things that are clickbait, things that are optimized for Facebook, low-quality things that appeal to the lowest common denominator and, honestly, just things at random.

Building on that some, if an entertainment company which specializes in original material produces a video and posts it to their one official Facebook Page, which, let’s say, has one million followers, they might get a few thousand interactions and shares on that video and drive some interest to their website and other projects. But let’s say some random individual in Seychelles has built up several Facebook Pages with over one million followers on which they’ve posted “things at random” — articles, memes, cartoons and videos they’ve aggregated from the Internet for years — to promote growth and manipulate Facebook’s algorithm. In many instances, these pages are mostly filled with “low-quality things that appeal to the lowest common denominator.” To that person, who most likely figured out some way to profit off of their pages via clickbait articles or merchandising of some sort, a new, funny video is perfect to post to one of their Facebook Pages, regardless of whether or not they have permission to post it as their own. And the kicker is, they share that content across their networks and end up getting thousands more shares (and increased reach and activity levels for their pages) than the originating source. This is effectively theft that Facebook makes original content creators jump through hoops to rectify and remove — if they even realize it happened. Then even if Facebook does remove the content, by the time it’s taken down, the damage has already been done and there are usually little to no repercussions.

This is an unethical tactic many larger pages have used over the last several years to build their audience — by aggregating articles, memes, cartoons or videos, passing them off as their own, and using them to build massive networks that have created echo chambers of low-quality “entertainment” and pseudoscience websites, hyper-sensationalized “news,” and, yes, even fake news sites looking to co-opt real news while mixing in extreme sensationalism and lies to keep people confused and angry.

As most people reading this probably already know, “shock” and playing to emotions sells much better on social media than bland, factually based news and opinion — and therein lies the fundamental problem.

Page and website owners quickly realized that the more “shocking” and pandering to their audience their content was, posting information they knew their followers wanted to see, no matter how dishonest and no matter where it was from — even if they basically stole it from somewhere else — the more likely their followers were going to Like/Share/Comment on it, thus manipulating Facebook’s algorithm into making it visible in more newsfeeds.

Here at Forward Progressives we started using more sensationalized wording in our headlines shortly after forming the site in 2013 to keep up. We quickly realized that we were quite literally not getting web traffic if we didn’t use a stronger presentation for articles that made an impact and earned reactions on Facebook’s newsfeed. Our justification was always that “selling out” to use some level of clickbait was worth it because we believe in the quality and accuracy of our content.

Fact checking site Media Bias/Fact Check, which rates Forward Progressives as “High” for factual reporting, summarizes us like this:

Forward Progressives is a news and opinion website with a left bias in reporting. This source uses strong loaded words in headlines that are very sensationalized. The opinion pieces on this website are very far left politically, but yet reasonably sourced to validate opinions. News reporting also contains loaded language, but is almost always sourced to credible news and information.

While I wouldn’t call us “far left,” considering we’ve called out the far left plenty of times over the years, we freely admit that we use strong words in headlines. Though as Media Bias/Fact Check also pointed out, sensationalized headlines or not, our articles are sourced and backed by “credible news and information.”

When a platform that depends on its users expressing their emotions builds an algorithm around rewarding content that’s highly sensationalized, that’s how misleading propaganda is spread while real news is suppressed. The most “shocking” memes and headlines, even those that are completely false, will often be the ones that go viral and spread out to tens of thousands, if not millions, of people.

The validity of a headline, or the information contained within the article, is a moot point if the vast majority of the people reading it are going to blindly believe it simply because it’s telling them what they want to be real. At that point, the only thing creators of fake news need to do is find out what people want to hear, come up with whatever sensationalism or lies they feel will sell best, then publish that garbage knowing that it’s the type of content that will be rewarded by Facebook’s algorithm.

The flip side to this is that if a Facebook Page decides that it wants to publish content that might not pander to what every member of their audience wants to hear, people will often then “unlike” that page. Which is fine, that’s everyone’s right to do just that. However, when Facebook’s algorithm rewards interactions, while basically punishing pages that don’t get as many Likes/Shares/Comments, it makes publishers leery to publish anything that might not conform to the preconceived beliefs of their audience out of fear that driving any off could cause a ripple effect in Facebook’s algorithm, effectively “punishing” the page for a drop in overall activity.

This goes back to what I said earlier about many pages basing their “business model” around pandering to an audience rather than producing quality, factual, original content. Which plays right into the hands of frauds, con artists, crooks, and Russian trolls and hackers who know all of this and easily found ways to manipulate this system for their own benefit.

To put it bluntly, the advent of the algorithm based on a user’s interaction with Facebook was really the foundation for the proliferation of fake news to tens of millions of people.

The Catch-22 to Debunking Fake or Misleading News:

Since many people tend to follow sources that confirm ideas they already believe to be true, fake news purveyors were easily able to exploit this reality to their advantage.

However, there was a catch-22 to all of this that I’m sure most people didn’t realize: it punishes sites trying to debunk or fact-check the fake news.

If humans tend to reject what they don’t want to be true, then any site trying to publish the truth to debunk a lie is often going to be rejected by those who’d rather continue going on believing their political fan fiction rather than actual facts.

Forward Progressives has experienced this firsthand.

During the 2016 Democratic primary, I actually wrote more positive articles about Bernie Sanders than I did Hillary Clinton, and frequently fact-checked falsehoods against both candidates. Nevertheless, since I didn’t go along with the “Bernie is flawless” narrative being pushed by a lot of left-leaning Facebook Pages, we lost thousands of followers during the primary for pointing out factual things such as Sanders’ hypocrisy on superdelegates (he initially said they should side with whatever candidate won the state, then later said he was going to try to “flip” some from the states Clinton won) or how Clinton won the nomination mostly because he performed poorly in more diverse states (not because the primary was “rigged against him”).

Even though Forward Progressives published several positive articles about Sanders (more so than we did about Clinton), and always encouraged everyone to support the Democratic candidate no matter who won the primary, we were quickly labeled a “shill for Clinton,” with Sanders supporters accusing me daily of taking money from her campaign.

Was any of that true? Of course not — but it’s what those making such accusations wanted to believe.

Since we said some things these folks didn’t want to hear or believe, even though what we were pointing out was factual, many stopped following us, yet continued to follow various pages like US Uncut that fed them all the pro-Sanders/anti-Clinton slop they could consume.

This played into the hands of Russian trolls who realized that if they posed as outspoken Sanders supporters on social media, they could create discord on the left which might be even more beneficial than simply pushing pro-Trump propaganda. After all, why not come from both sides, right? Tear apart the left while promoting the right.

Which goes back to my point about being a “catch-22.”

We’ve seen the same thing over the years when we’ve fact-checked supposed “liberal news” sources. Many of our readers have appreciated the effort put into it, but for everybody who appreciates it, there seems to be an equal number of people who tell us, “Who cares? Republicans lie all the time! Focus on fact-checking them not attacking liberals!”

There have been times where we lost hundreds of followers over one post fact-checking a “liberal” lie. People who stopped following us over one article based on facts that didn’t conform to what they wanted to be true.

In reality it became counterproductive for many pages to try to combat fake news because that partisan fan fiction became the type of information Facebook’s algorithm was rewarding while punishing the pages that lost followers (thus lost interaction) by calling out “their side” for spreading misinformation, conspiracies, and other outright lies.

Facebook’s Massively Flawed Advertisement Platform:

Unlike most major networks, newspapers, or any sort of media entity selling advertisement space, Facebook’s “quality control” is almost non-existent. Whether by design to make as much money as possible, gross incompetence, or simply not giving a damn, Facebook created a massive advertising platform so fraught with flaws it allowed “advertisers” to target audiences of “Jew haters” or people who were looking up “how to b*rn Jews.”

A few months ago Facebook announced that it had apparently allowed Russia to spend $100,000 on political ads during a 2-year span promoting divisive content on topics such as race, immigration, and gay rights.

Though I’d like to go on record stating that I’m willing to bet Russian operatives spent much more than just $100,000 attempting to influence United States citizens on Facebook. Unfortunately, considering how much of this Facebook has tried to keep private out of fear of more public embarrassment, we may never truly know how much Russia dumped into Facebook ads to promote fake news, pages, and sow discord in this country. Of course, that’s in conjunction with their ongoing false amplification campaigns on social media through the use of troll and bot accounts. I’ve stated previously that Facebook’s assertion that only a few hundred Russian accounts were involved in these activities is an absolute joke, and I’d be shocked if it weren’t tens of thousands.

For years many people have realized how easy the site’s advertisement platform was to manipulate. A page run by people with deep pocketbooks could pay thousands of dollars to promote itself, say practically anything it wanted to in that promoted/sponsored post, and dupe people into “liking” a page because Facebook has almost no real oversight over any of this.

Here are several examples of the types of paid advertising Facebook has approved to show up in newsfeeds over the past couple years:

All 12 of those ads — and there are many more just like them for those and other pages — are prime examples of shady and unethical paid advertising. From fake petitions and fake polls to awful grammar and false endorsements, it’s really a veritable cornucopia of “low-quality things that appeal to the lowest common denominator.” But the “genius” in these ads is that every one of them plays to a person’s emotions, making it more likely they’ll click “Like” while scrolling through their newsfeed. 

Such as Liberal Speak, which used a picture of a teary-eyed Barack Obama saluting his wife Michelle during his farewell speech: “Leave a Like and lets fight to continue Obama’s amazing legacy. We need you’re help!” Aside from being utterly ridiculous, this ad goes directly against Facebook’s Advertising TOS which states:

17. Grammar & Profanity
Ads must not contain profanity or bad grammar and punctuation. Symbols, numbers and letters must be used properly without the intention of circumventing our ad review process or other enforcement systems.

Then there are the ones that ask you to “Like” if you trust news from Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow.

Full disclosure: progressive American activists, some of whom are associated with Forward Progressives, have maintained and moderated a couple of unofficial fan pages for people like Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart. It’s made very clear (in multiple locations) that these are fan pages, not official pages for these individuals, and nobody associated with the pages has ever claimed to be or represent them in any capacity, whether in public or in private message. That’s much different than paying for an advertisement suggesting that someone should “like” the page — if they trust news from Maddow or Stewart.

Though perhaps the worst ad of the bunch is the one from “Fight Trump” which uses a photo of Bernie Sanders that’s clearly worded in such a way as to make people who see that particular ad believe that the senator, himself, had a “goal of 1 million likes” for that page.

Facebook’s Advertising TOS states:

The “Fight Trump” page pushes content from a site called Washington Press. No, not Washington PostWashington Pressa “newcomer” to political media which, according to Alexa.com’s estimates, has managed to become a top 5,000 website in the United States in just a few short months of existence. In fact, the “Anti-Trump Army” and “Impeach Trump” pages consistently boost Washington Press posts as well. And where does Alexa show most of Washington Press’s overall web traffic coming from? Facebook, of course. The same platform on which they get more interactions on their posts than The Washington Post, even though The Washington Post has four times more Facebook followers than Washington Press.

And this is just a small sampling of approved paid advertisements that Facebook has ignored its own TOS for in favor of making as much money as possible. Now imagine what Russians (or anyone for that matter) backed by a lot of money, with a goal to divide Americans, push propaganda, and undermine the credibility of our news media and elections would be able to accomplish manipulating such an easy-to-game structure of both page-building and advertising on Facebook, in conjunction with other false amplification throughout social media.

Wait, we already know what they can do: help elect Donald Trump.

While Facebook says they’ve taken steps to fix some of their problems, anyone can still easily create one of these unethical ads to promote their Facebook Page in a matter of only a few seconds. Meaning that a Russian operative with a budget of $100,000 could start a Facebook Page right now, make one of these misleading ads to build a targeted audience and, according to Facebook’s own numbers based on that budget, could build an audience of up to 750,000 in just 10 days to pump out fake news to. As someone who’s worked in this business for years (and advocated for progressive values on Facebook since around 2010), I can say for certainty that 750,000 “likes” would quickly grow to over a million in no time, giving whoever was running it the ability to spread fake news to tens of millions of people. Add in a few of their friends working alongside them and factor in that this has obviously been going on for quite a while already with no oversight from Facebook, and it becomes clear how easily these people have been able to game the system.

Again, this is something that’s still currently allowed to happen on Facebook, which is concerning considering midterm elections are just a few short months away and no one seems to be doing anything about it.

Facebook is Killing Independent Media and Creating an Environment Where Only Those Who Can “Pay to Play” Will Survive:

Recently Facebook made a massive change to their algorithm that’s drastically reduced the number of posts users of Facebook will see from the pages they follow. According to Facebook, this change was meant to place more of an emphasis on things posted by your friends and family instead of publishers. This came after months of public scrutiny about the site’s role in helping spread fake news from pages like some of the ones I just talked about.

While that sounds like a decent plan to try to combat fake news and misleading propaganda, it’s not going to do anything but force page owners to try to find new ways to “game” the algorithm, while publishers layer themselves behind several different websites, pages and groups (sometimes playing all ends of the political spectrum) to see which techniques work best.

Buzzfeed’s Katie Notopoulos experimented with the new algorithm and quickly discovered she could torture her friends and family with a video that stayed in newsfeeds because people kept commenting on it — which Facebook rewards by telling those people’s friends about their comment. As of that article’s publication, that video had haunted the newsfeeds of her friends and family for 12 days.

Or there’s the huge liberal Facebook Page The Other 98%, which posted a fake video meme a while back that got hundreds of thousands of shares and 13 million views. Yes, that’s one of the same tactics David Wolfe (formerly an avocado, apparently) uses to stay “relevant” and game the algorithm on Facebook.

So, it seems Facebook now places a larger emphasis on posts that generate a lot of comments, regardless of how truthful or original they are.

All this will do is create larger “troll armies” of fake profiles that will bombard these fake news posts with comments and reactions (much like they were already doing), hoping to manipulate Facebook’s algorithm into keeping them visible to more people, thus helping these unethical crooks spread misinformation, conspiracies, and outright lies.

All the while many smaller, independent pages or websites are struggling because their audience has been massively reduced due to Facebook’s recent change.

Such as LittleThings, a 4-year-old site that recently shut down, putting 100 people out of work, after Facebook’s algorithm change cut their reach by 75 percent. The independently-funded site was harmless, and didn’t push any kind of fake news, but they had to shut down within a matter of only a couple of weeks after this change because their audience had been reduced by that much.

Even here at Forward Progressives, I’m not really sure how much longer we’ll be able to keep this going. That’s simply the reality of it — a large portion of our website’s traffic has always come from readers who were browsing Facebook and saw our articles in their newsfeed. As much as we care about spreading awareness and want to help make this country a better place, Facebook’s changes have hit us (and many sites like ours) hard. We’re doing our best to keep things afloat, but seeing as we’re completely self-funded, we don’t have any deep-pocketed backers to help us overcome these changes. I’ve spoken to several other page administrators and website owners who are facing the same dilemma.

Eventually, all that’s going to be left getting regular interaction on Facebook are things like fake video memes meant to manipulate the algorithm to go viral on a network of pages, along with pages and websites backed by big money that can afford to dump the tens of thousands of dollars the site wants publishers to pay to overcome the algorithm.

Because that’s the kicker to all of this.

While Facebook says it cares about making sure people see more quality content, it still allows pages to pay to promote themselves (as I outlined above) or “boost posts.” What that means is that any page can pay to “boost” a particular post so it’s shown in more newsfeeds. So, say a Russian-backed page with a large bankroll wants to spread fake news, all it really needs to do, other than manipulating page-building and advertising as I discussed earlier, is pay to “boost” their posts to bypass Facebook’s algorithm.

For example, if I wanted to “boost” the last post on Forward Progressives, according to Facebook’s numbers, a budget of $1,000 could get that particular article exposed to an audience of up to 210,000 people per day.

We don’t have that kind of money — but large sites, pages, media conglomerates, and Russians do. I’m not begrudging anybody for wanting to generate revenue, but the fees Facebook charges don’t make fiscal sense to pay when the amount paid to “boost” a post doesn’t even generate enough money to cover the costs of paying for that advertisement. You don’t need to be an advertising or marketing expert to realize it doesn’t make sense for a website to pay for an advertisement that it doesn’t feel is going to bring in more money than they paid for it.

Unless, of course, making money isn’t your goal — but creating chaos, dividing Americans, and trying to manipulate our elections, is.

And I’m barely even scratching the surface of all of these problems. 

When you combine the shenanigans Facebook has allowed with false amplification efforts on Twitter, SEO manipulation on Google, and bot and troll efforts to manipulate algorithms and sow discord on other forums, it becomes easier to understand how chaos agents have thrived while the truth has suffered. Because quite honestly, I’m hardly even scratching the surface of Facebook’s problems, much less getting into any of those other areas.

For instance, there’s the issues concerning how Facebook allows pages to change their names. Their terms state that the new page name must not be significantly different from the original, but in all reality they’ve proven they don’t really care. The Forward Progressives Facebook Page started out as “One Million Strong Against Mitt Romney in 2012,” which was made after Romney announced his candidacy for president. On it, we shared original memes and news from many different credible sources in an attempt to get people energized, educated and to the polls in 2012. After Barack Obama won reelection, many people stopped following the page because the main goal had been completed. Weeks later, after a few failed attempts to change the page name, Facebook finally approved a change to “Forward Progressives” so we could continue our mission with a fresh slate. Nothing about our mission changed, aside from the fact that Mitt Romney was no longer relevant to it. But our passion for debunking Republican lies and calling out b.s. from all sides remained.

I’m not completely against being allowed to change a page name, but I think it’s fairly obvious how this could be abused considering Facebook’s lack of any real oversight.

Here’s a political Facebook Page owner (who’s not affiliated in any way with Forward Progressives) describing how they manipulated Facebook’s system to allow them to change their page name a full 5 times to get something entirely new. This is from a public post, but I’ve removed identifying details because they’re not necessary to drive home the point:

Even if a website was exposed as fake news or Russian propaganda and blocked from Facebook, the fact that Facebook allows a user to operate as many pages and groups as they want, combined with the fact that Facebook allows multiple page name changes and page merges, means that the same players can just keep hiding behind layers and cycling through new websites (which are easily created) to continue pumping out extreme sensationalism or fake news on a wide scale. Furthermore, Facebook doesn’t cooperate with the WayBackMachine, so a lot of the layering gets almost impossible to keep track of unless somebody is paying extremely close attention.

That’s why I’ve said for a long time now that basically everything Facebook does to combat fake news is only making it worse. The site built a system that was easily manipulated by the unethical, if not outright criminal, and now to “fix” some of the issues it’s been called out on since before the 2016 election, they’re making changes that are only going to benefit people and organizations with deep pocketbooks and those who choose to use every underhanded trick in the book to keep their reach up.

I’m not going to say that the problem is easy to fix — it’s not. If Facebook is serious about making the site better, combating fake news, and promoting quality content, then it’s going to take a huge investment on their part to do that. But this taking a hatchet to a problem that requires a scalpel isn’t doing anything but killing off independent media, leaving those backed by big bankrolls, and often driven by shady agendas, the only ones left who can pay to overcome Facebook’s algorithm changes.

Because right now, nothing is stopping Russian operatives — or anyone else looking to push fake news and conspiracies — from dumping tens of thousands of dollars into manipulative ads to build a real following of Americans, then using troll armies to flood comment sections with low-grade contributions to keep certain Facebook Pages and groups ranking high in the newsfeed heading into the 2018 midterm and beyond.

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Allen Clifton

Allen Clifton is a native Texan who now lives in the Austin area. He has a degree in Political Science from Sam Houston State University. Allen is a co-founder of Forward Progressives and creator of the popular Right Off A Cliff column and Facebook page. Be sure to follow Allen on Twitter and Facebook, and subscribe to his channel on YouTube as well.