Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer
Most of the attention on Facebook and disinformation in the past week or so has focused on the platform’s controversial decision not to fact-check political advertising, along with the choice of right-wing site Breitbart News as one of the “trusted sources” for Facebook’s News tab. But these two developments are just part of the much larger story about Facebook’s role in distributing disinformation of all kinds, an issue that is becoming more crucial as we get closer to the 2020 presidential election. And according to one recent study, the problem is getting worse instead of better, especially when it comes to news stories about issues related to the election. Avaaz, a site that specializes in raising public awareness about global public-policy issues, says its research shiws fake news stories got 86 million views in the past three months, more than three times as many as during the previous three-month period.
The study isn’t online yet, but Avaaz supplied a preview of its research to Judd Legum, who writes the progressive newsletter Popular Information (the study was also reported on by Associated Press, Venturebeat, CNN and Vice News). According to Legum, the report says that in the first ten months of this year, “politically relevant disinformation was found to have reached over 158 million estimated views, enough to reach every reported registered voter in the US at least once.” The report looked at the top 100 fake news stories about US politics on the platform, as defined by Crowdtangle, the Facebook-owned traffic-measurement tool that tracks the network’s most popular pages and links. Avaaz says it looked at viral stories that had already been fact-checked and debunked by reputable US fact-checking organizations at the time of the study, and found that they were still drawing in vast amounts of viewership.
According to Legum’s summary of the study, Avaaz found that almost all of the fake news stories that went viral on the network — more than 90 percent — were negative, and the majority of those were about Democrats or liberals. Positive news was only a tiny proportion of the total, the study says, and 100 percent of it was about Republicans or conservatives. One significant exception to this general trend, according to Avaaz, was the top most-viewed fake story, which was about Donald Trump’s father, Fred, which came from a purported news website calling itself The American Herald Tribune. The story said the elder Trump was “a pimp and tax evader,” and that Fred’s father was a member of the Ku Klux Klan (none of these allegations are supported by any factual evidence). Despite being debunked by an official Facebook fact-checking partner, the Trump article was viewed more than 29 million times, according to Avaaz.
The second biggest fake news story was aimed at Nancy Pelosi: An article from a site called Potatriots Unite claimed that she was diverting billions from Social Security to cover impeachment costs. Avaaz noted that the piece was labeled as satire, but that this wasn’t immediately apparent to anyone reading the story. It also points out that the story was debunked by Politifact, a Facebook fact-checking partner, and that — as is standard with such fact-checked pieces — anyone who attempted to share the link would be faced with a popup message telling them that it contained false information. The popup also warns that those who shared such misinformation regularly might find their “overall distribution reduced or be restricted in other ways.” Nevertheless, the story was shared more than 24 million times, Avaaz says.
In a statement sent to Vice and other outlets, a Facebook spokesperson said other studies have shown the company has cut the amount of fake news on its platform since the 2016 election, and that the company has been investing more in warning labels and other notifications. If nothing else, what the Avaaz study shows is that, despite all of these efforts by Facebook, fake news stories about candidates and election topics are not only circulating widely — more widely than just about anything else on the network — but warning labels seem to be doing little or nothing to stop them. All of which suggests that even if Facebook did decide to fact-check political advertising after all, it might not change anything about the spread of disinformation on the platform. Hundreds of millions of Facebook users seem to be more than happy to share — and possibly even believe — things that are clearly labelled as being fake.
Here’s more on Facebook and disinformation:
Manipulation built in: In an op-ed piece for the Washington Post, Yaël Eisenstat — the former head of election integrity for Facebook and a former CIA officer — says the problem with Facebook is that “it profits partly by amplifying lies and selling dangerous targeting tools that allow political operatives to engage in a new level of information warfare.” Tinkering around the margins of the platform’s advertising policies won’t fix these serious issues, Eisenstat writes. “As long as Facebook prioritizes profit over healthy discourse, they can’t avoid damaging democracies.”
Zuck on targeting: Dylan Byers of NBC News reports that several high-ranking sources inside Facebook say CEO Mark Zuckerberg isn’t prepared to budge on whether to fact-check political ads or not, but that he “remains open to ideas about how to curb the spread of false ads, including limiting the ability of candidates to target narrow groups of users.” The head of the Federal Election Commission, Ellen Weintraub, wrote in a recent op-ed for the Washington Post that Facebook should stop allowing campaigns to micro-target users with messaging.
Misinfo from inside: NBC has published a cache of more than 7,000 pages of leaked Facebook documents, including confidential internal emails, web chats, notes, and presentations. The news site says the documents show how Mark Zuckerberg worked to consolidate the social network’s power and control competitors, while claiming that the changes being made were for user privacy. The documents are part of a lawsuit that a startup called Six4Three brought against Facebook for cutting off access to the platform. Some were previously released by a UK government committee.
Other notable stories:
Right-wing media sites such as Breitbart News have published stories in which they claim to have identified the whistleblower behind the allegations involving Donald Trump and Ukraine — reports that were retweeted by Donald Trump Jr., among others — but management of Fox News have reportedly instructed the network’s hosts not to repeat the name, according to a report from CNN that quoted internal emails. Fox anchor Sean Hannity said Monday that he had “confirmed independently” the identity of the whistleblower, but stopped short of naming the person on air.
Reveal, the reporting arm of the Center for Investigative Reporting, revealed that it has been fighting a lawsuit for more than three years that has already cost it millions of dollars in legal fees. The case stems from an investigative report the site did into Planet Aid, an international charity that had received U.S. government funds for aid programs in impoverished areas of southern Africa. Among other things, the site reported that employees of a Planet Aid subcontractor in Malawi routinely were required to kick back portions of their salaries to a bank account controlled by a cult-like organization.
The Washington Post union has published a report looking at pay discrepancies among the editorial staff of the newspaper. The Guild says a team spent four months analyzing data provided by the Post, a reporting effort led by Pulitzer Prize-winning data journalist Steven Rich. Among the conclusions are that women as a group are paid less than men who work at the paper; that employees of color are paid less than white men, even when controlling for age and job description, and that the pay disparity between men and women is most pronounced among journalists under the age of 40.
Jonathan Albright, director of the Digital Forensics Initiative at Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, writes in Wired magazine about a study he helped write that looked at trolling behavior targeted at two Muslim congressional candidates, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. Albright writes that the study reinforced his view that “social platforms are increasingly populated by machines: bots, conversational AI, etc. Their agenda includes silencing real people who voice opposition and support for certain views.”
BuzzFeed News writes about a network of fake local news sites, with names like Albany Daily News and City of Edmonton News, that based on their traffic and digital ad rates, may have earned more revenue from programmatic ads than the leading news outlets in the cities they are named after, according to research from a firm called Social Puncher. The Albany Daily News reportedly racked up nearly 10 million pageviews in August, roughly five times that of the 160-year-old Times Union newspaper, a legitimate publication based in Albany.
Lauren Harris writes for CJR about what happens when women make sexual harassment allegations and then those allegations are reported on, something that can subject them to even more unwanted scrutiny. “It’s exhausting for survivors because it’s not like you speak out once and then it’s over,” says Felicia Sonmez, a reporter who made allegations against a former co-worker. “In my case, it’s been a process of having to keep reasserting myself and making sure my own voice was heard. When people have tried to put their own spin on my story, I’ve had to push back.”
The Society of Professional Journalists is asking Congress to “support the right of unimpeded communication” between federal employees, including scientists, and journalists. Over the last 25 years, the group says there has been “a rapid trend toward federal agencies and others prohibiting staff members from communicating to journalists without reporting to some authority, often public information officers.” These restrictions, the SPJ says, have become “an effective form of censorship by which powerful entities keep the American people ignorant about what impacts them.”
The UK’s Tory party is under fire for circulating a video clip on its social-media channels that show an opposition MP apparently unable to come up with a response to a question about the Labour party’s position on Brexit. In fact, the MP provided a lengthy answer to the question. Good Morning Britain presenter Piers Morgan said that the MP’s answer might have been “unconvincing,” but the way the video was edited by the Tories was “misleading and unfair”.
The 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund and the World Trade Center Health Program are both available for members of the media who covered the terrorist attack in New York in September of 2001, CNN reports. Two journalists who reported on the disaster and have since contracted cancer — Bruce David Martin, a former news operation manager and photojournalist for WWOR-TV and former NBC staffer Vincent Novak — spoke with CNN because they said they wanted to spread the word to other journalists that they could be covered by the funds as well.
Slate spoke to three of the former editorial staff at Deadspin, all of whom quit the site, along with the rest of their more than a dozen former colleagues, after a directive from the site’s owner, G/O Media, that Deadspin should “stick to sports.” Former editor-in-chief Megan Greenwell, senior editor Barry Petchesky and writer Tom Ley talked about the events that led up to the mass resignations. Editorial director Paul Maidment, the man who handed down the directive, resigned earlier this week, saying he was leaving to pursue an “entrepreneurial opportunity.”