How Facebook and Google fund global misinformation
MIT’s Technology Review shares data from a Facebook-run tool called CrowdTangle. It shows that by 2018 in the nation of Myanmar (population: 53 million), ” All the engagement had instead gone to fake news and clickbait websites.
“In a country where Facebook is synonymous with the internet, the low-grade content overwhelmed other information sources.”
[T]he sheer volume of fake news and clickbait acted like fuel on the flames of already dangerously high ethnic and religious tensions. It shifted public opinion and escalated the conflict, which ultimately led to the death of 10,000 Rohingya, by conservative estimates, and the displacement of 700,000 more. In 2018, a United Nations investigation determined that the violence against the Rohingya constituted a genocide and that Facebook had played a “determining role” in the atrocities. Months later, Facebook admitted it hadn’t done enough “to help prevent our platform from being used to foment division and incite offline violence.” Over the last few weeks, the revelations from the Facebook Papers, a collection of internal documents provided to Congress and a consortium of news organizations by whistleblower Frances Haugen, have reaffirmed what civil society groups have been saying for years: Facebook’s algorithmic amplification of inflammatory content, combined with its failure to prioritize content moderation outside the US and Europe, has fueled the spread of hate speech and misinformation, dangerously destabilizing countries around the world.
But there’s a crucial piece missing from the story. Facebook isn’t just amplifying misinformation.
The company is also funding it.
An MIT Technology Review investigation, based on expert interviews, data analyses, and documents that were not included in the Facebook Papers, has found that Facebook and Google are paying millions of ad dollars to bankroll clickbait actors, fueling the deterioration of information ecosystems around the world.
Facebook pays them for permission to open their content within Facebook’s app (where Facebook controls the advertising) rather than having users clickthrough to the publisher’s own web site, reports Technology Review:
Early on, Facebook performed little quality control on the types of publishers joining the program. The platform’s design also didn’t sufficiently penalize users for posting identical content across Facebook pages — in fact, it rewarded the behavior. Posting the same article on multiple pages could as much as double the number of users who clicked on it and generated ad revenue. Clickbait farms around the world seized on this flaw as a strategy — one they still use today… Clickbait actors cropped up in Myanmar overnight. With the right recipe for producing engaging and evocative content, they could generate thousands of U.S. dollars a month in ad revenue, or 10 times the average monthly salary — paid to them directly by Facebook. An internal company document, first reported by MIT Technology Review in October, shows that Facebook was aware of the problem as early as 2019… At one point, as many as 60% of the domains enrolled in Instant Articles were using the spammy writing tactics employed by clickbait farms, the report said…
75% of users who were exposed to clickbait content from farms run in Macedonia and Kosovo had never followed any of the pages. Facebook’s content-recommendation system had instead pushed it into their news feeds.
Technology Review notes that Facebook now pays billions of dollars to the publishers in their program. It’s a long and detailed article, which ultimately concludes that the problem “is now happening on a global scale.”
Thousands of clickbait operations have sprung up, primarily in countries where Facebook’s payouts provide a larger and steadier source of income than other forms of available work. Some are teams of people while others are individuals, abetted by cheap automated tools that help them create and distribute articles at mass scale…
Google is also culpable. Its AdSense program fueled the Macedonia- and Kosovo-based farms that targeted American audiences in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election. And it’s AdSense that is incentivizing new clickbait actors on YouTube to post outrageous content and viral misinformation.
Reached for comment, a Facebook spokesperson told Technology Review that they’d misunderstood the issue. And the spokesperson also said “we’ve invested in building new expert-driven and scalable solutions to these complex issues for many years, and will continue doing so.”
Google’s spokesperson confirmed examples in the article violated their own policies and removed the content, adding “We work hard to protect viewers from clickbait or misleading content across our platforms and have invested heavily in systems that are designed to elevate authoritative information.”