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How Facebook and Google fund global misinformation

Myanmar, March 2021.

A month after the fall of the democratic government.

In 2015, six of the 10 websites in Myanmar getting the most engagement on Facebook were from legitimate media, according to data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-run tool. A year later, Facebook (which recently rebranded to Meta) offered global access to Instant Articles, a program publishers could use to monetize their content.

One year after that rollout, legitimate publishers accounted for only two of the top 10 publishers on Facebook in Myanmar. By 2018, they accounted for zero. 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.

It was during this rapid degradation of Myanmar’s digital environment that a militant group of Rohingya—a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority—attacked and killed a dozen members of the security forces, in August of 2017. As police and military began to crack down on the Rohingya and push out anti-Muslim propaganda, fake news articles capitalizing on the sentiment went viral. They claimed that Muslims were armed, that they were gathering in mobs 1,000 strong, that they were around the corner coming to kill you.

It’s still not clear today whether the fake news came primarily from political actors or from financially motivated ones. But either way, the 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.

The anatomy of a clickbait farm

Facebook launched its Instant Articles program in 2015 with a handful of US and European publishers. The company billed the program as a way to improve article load times and create a slicker user experience.

That was the public sell. But the move also conveniently captured advertising dollars from Google. Before Instant Articles, articles posted on Facebook would redirect to a browser, where they’d open up on the publisher’s own website. The ad provider, usually Google, would then cash in on any ad views or clicks. With the new scheme, articles would open up directly within the Facebook app, and Facebook would own the ad space. If a participating publisher had also opted into monetizing with Facebook’s advertising network, called Audience Network, Facebook could insert ads into the publisher’s stories and take a 30% cut of the revenue. 

Instant Articles quickly fell out of favor with its original cohort of big mainstream publishers. For them, the payouts weren’t high enough compared with other available forms of monetization. But that was not true for publishers in the Global South, which Facebook began accepting into the program in 2016. In 2018, the company reported paying out $1.5 billion to publishers and app developers (who can also participate in Audience Network). In 2019, that figure had reached multiple billions.

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 US dollars a month in ad revenue, or 10 times the average monthly salary—paid to them directly by Facebook.

Scammers used to make their $$ from naive people. Now they get their payments straight from some of the world’s biggest tech companies. Sorry David — but this is NOT equivalent. https://t.co/mhMZMTNi6e pic.twitter.com/hgqYBcHw8U— Victoire Rio (@riovictoire) September 19, 2021

If this is wild – let’s check out @google, who officially says it does not enable monetisation in Myanmar (too risky) but in practice turns a blind eye and finds no issue with making payments into Myanmar bank accounts The rules https://t.co/vCdrTpkGbf https://t.co/gX2FbeIa00 pic.twitter.com/dYV3eJp2eH— Victoire Rio (@riovictoire) September 20, 2021

An internal company document, first reported by MIT Technology Review in October, shows that Facebook was aware of the problem as early as 2019. The author, former Facebook data scientist Jeff Allen, found that these exact tactics had allowed clickbait farms in Macedonia and Kosovo to reach nearly half a million Americans a year before the 2020 election. The farms had also made their way into Instant Articles and Ad Breaks, a similar monetization program for inserting ads into Facebook videos. 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. Allen, bound by a nondisclosure agreement with Facebook, did not comment on the report.

Despite pressure from both internal and external researchers, Facebook struggled to stem the abuse. Meanwhile, the company was rolling out more monetization programs to open up new streams of revenue. Besides Ad Breaks for videos, there was IGTV Monetization for Instagram and In-Stream Ads for Live videos. “That reckless push for user growth we saw—now we are seeing a reckless push for publisher growth,” says Victoire Rio, a digital rights researcher fighting platform-induced harms in Myanmar and other countries in the Global South.

MIT Technology Review has found 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. They’re no longer limited to publishing articles, either. They push out Live videos and run Instagram accounts, which they monetize directly or use to drive more traffic to their sites.

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.

Many clickbait farms today now monetize with both Instant Articles and AdSense, receiving payouts from both companies. And because Facebook’s and YouTube’s algorithms boost whatever is engaging to users, they’ve created an information ecosystem where content that goes viral on one platform will often be recycled on the other to maximize distribution and revenue.

“These actors wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the platforms,” Rio says.

In response to the detailed evidence we provided to each company of this behavior, Meta spokesperson Joe Osborne disputed our core findings, saying we’d misunderstood the issue. “Regardless, we’ve invested in building new expert-driven and scalable solutions to these complex issues for many years, and will continue doing so,” he said.

Google confirmed the behavior violated its policies and terminated all of the YouTube channels MIT Technology Review identified to be spreading misinformation. “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,” YouTube spokesperson Ivy Choi said.

These farms are not just targeting their home countries. Following the example of actors from Macedonia and Kosovo, the newest operators have realized they need to understand neither a country’s local context nor its language to turn political outrage into income.

MIT Technology Review partnered with Allen, who now leads a nonprofit called the Integrity Institute that conducts research on platform abuse, to identify possible clickbait actors on Facebook. We focused on pages run out of Cambodia and Vietnam—two of the countries where clickbait operations are now cashing in on the situation in Myanmar.

We obtained data from CrowdTangle, whose development team the company broke up earlier this year, and from Facebook’s Publisher Lists, which record which publishers are registered in monetization programs. Allen wrote a custom clustering algorithm to find pages posting content in a highly coordinated manner and targeting speakers of languages used primarily outside the countries where the operations are based. We then analyzed which clusters had at least one page registered in a monetization program or were heavily promoting content from a page registered with a program.

We found over 2,000 pages in both countries engaged in this clickbait-like behavior. (That could be an undercount, because not all Facebook pages are tracked by CrowdTangle.) Many have millions of followers and likely reach even more users. In his 2019 report, Allen found that 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.

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