Escaping Facebook Hell

Charlie Warzel of The New York Times monitored two average people’s Facebook feeds. It was as bad as you’d expect, but his article suggests solutions to the problem:

In mid-October I asked two people I’d never met to give me their Facebook account passwords for three weeks leading up to and after Election Day. I wanted to immerse myself in the feeds of a type of person who has become a trope of sorts in our national discussion about politics and disinformation: baby boomers with an attachment to polarizing social media.

I went looking for older Americans — not full-blown conspiracy theorists, trolls or partisan activists — whose news consumption has increased sharply in the last few years on Facebook. Neither of the two people I settled on described themselves as partisans. Both used to identify as conservatives slowly drifting leftward until Dxxxx Txxxx’s takeover of the Republican Party offered a final push. Both voted for Joe Biden this year in part because of his promise to reach across the aisle. Both bemoaned the toxicity of our current politics.

Every day, Jim Young, 62, opens up his Facebook app and heads into an information hellscape. His news feed is a dizzying mix of mundane middle-class American life and high-octane propaganda.

Here’s a sample:

A set of adoring grandparents posing with rosy-cheeked babies. “Mimi and Pop Pop’s first visit since March,” the post reads.

Next, a meme of Joe Biden next to a photoshopped “for sale” sign. “For more information contact Hunter,” the sign reads.

After that is a post advertising a “Funny rude” metal sign displaying a unicorn in a tutu giving the middle finger. “Thought of you,” the post reads.

Below that is a screenshot of a meme created by the pro-Txxxx group Turning Points USA. “Your city on socialism,” the post reads, displaying a series of photos of abandoned buildings, empty grocery store shelves and bleeding men in makeshift, dirty hospital beds.

The feed goes on like this — an infinite scroll of content without context. Touching family moments are interspersed with Bible quotes that look like Hallmark cards, hyperpartisan fearmongering and conspiratorial misinformation. Mr. Young’s news feed is, in a word, a nightmare. I know because I spent the last three weeks living inside it.

Despite Facebook’s reputation as a leading source for conspiracy theories and misinformation, what goes on in most average Americans’ news feeds is nearly impossible for outsiders to observe. . . .

After years of reading about the ways that Facebook is radicalizing and polarizing people I wanted to see it for myself — not in the aggregate, but up close and over time. What I observed is a platform that gathered our past and present friendships, colleagues, acquaintances and hobbies and slowly turned them into primary news sources. And made us miserable in the process. . . .

Mr. Young joined Facebook in 2008 as a way to reconnect with his high school classmates from Illinois. He reunited quickly with old friends and neighbors. It was exciting to see how people had changed. . . .

It was a little voyeuristic, nostalgic and harmless fun. Before 2016, Mr. Young told me, he’d see the occasional heated disagreement. It wasn’t until the last few years that his feed really started to turn divisive.

He first noticed it in the comments, where discussions that would usually end in some version of “agree to disagree” exploded into drawn-out, conspiratorial comment threads. Political disagreements started to read like dispatches from an alternate reality. He didn’t enjoy fact-checking his friends or picking fights, but when a post appeared obviously untrue he had to say something.

His time on the site ticked upward.

“It’s like going by a car wreck. You don’t want to look, but you have to,” he said. He believes his feed is a perfect storm for conflict in part because he’s lived in both liberal and conservative areas of the country and throughout his life he’s lived, worked with and befriended all manner of liberals and conservatives. . . .

But then he noticed some of his friends start to post more political memes, often with no link or citation. When he’d try to verify one, he’d realize the post was fake or debunked by a news site. “Most times there’s no real debate. Just anger. They’re so closed-minded. Sometimes, it scares me.”

Scrolling through Mr. Young’s feed after Election Day, I found a number of these posts.

Many examples of misinformation came from Facebook text posts created and shared by Mr. Young’s friends repeating baseless voter-fraud claims, [for example, one claiming] the number of votes in Wisconsin exceeded the number of registered voters (with no links to these numbers or any authoritative news source).

On Nov. 5, one of Mr. Young’s friends posted about “something fishy” alongside a link to a Bing search. The link returned a page of information about voters having ballots thrown out after using Sharpies to fill them out, including a link to a Facebook post on #Sharpiegate with over 137,000 shares.

One featured a screenshot from a Fox 2 Detroit news broadcast with the banner “Detroit Voter Roll Lawsuit.” The screenshot alleged potential voter fraud. “And so it begins!” the friend wrote. According to a Snopes debunk, the segment actually aired in December 2019 and had nothing to do with the 2020 election.

Another text post suggested that people shouldn’t trust Facebook’s fact checkers. “When the fact checkers are controlled by the same people doing the lying, what do you call it?” the post read. Below, commenters sounded off. “Democrats,” one exclaimed.. . . .

Mr. Young’s feed stood in stark contrast to the other Facebook account I spent time in. That feed belongs to Karen Pierce, a 55-year-old schoolteacher from Virginia. Ms. Pierce described herself to me as a “middle-child peacekeeper who is uncomfortable with politics.”

Unlike Mr. Young, she is not politically active on Facebook and never intervenes, even when she sees things she thinks might be conspiratorial or fake. As a result, her feed surfaced less politically charged content. The day after the election, the first post I noticed from a friend in her feed was a simple, apolitical exclamation: “It’s official! I make a damn good pot of stew!”

The political posts that appeared in Ms. Pierce’s feed were mostly anodyne statements of support for the Biden-Harris campaign peppered in between comments from fellow teachers frustrated by remote learning and an avalanche of cute dog photos and memes. Occasionally, a meme popped up mentioning Hunter Biden’s laptop, but most lacked the vitriol or the contentious commenter debates of Mr. Young’s feed.

Yet, in my conversations with Ms. Pierce over the last month, she expressed just as much frustration with her experience on Facebook as Mr. Young. “It’s so extreme,” she told me in mid-October. “I’ve watched people go from debating the issue to coming up with the craziest thing they can say to get attention. Take the whole anti-abortion debate. People started talking, then started saying ‘if you vote for Biden you’re a murderer.’ Now there’s people posting graphic pictures of fetuses.”

When I told her I hadn’t seen anything that extreme on her page, she suggested it was because of a three-month break she took from the platform this summer. “It got to be too much with the pandemic and the politics,” she said. The final straw was seeing people in her feed post QAnon adjacent memes and content. “There was a lot of calling Biden a pedophile. Or Txxxx voters posting pictures with assault rifles. It made me very uncomfortable.”

Like millions of Americans, Ms. Pierce logs onto Facebook to feel more connected. “I use it to see how people are doing,” she said. “I believe in prayer and sometimes I check to see who is struggling and to see who to pray for. And then, of course, you see some news and read some articles.”

It was when she was using the platform for news that she started seeing disturbing, conspiracy posts from people in her network. “It was so disappointing to realize the hate that’s out there,” she said. . . .

She’s worried about the long-term effects of such a toxic environment. “I think it’s affecting the mood of everybody.”

Living inside the Facebook account of strangers — even with their permission — feels invasive, like poking around in their medicine cabinet. But it offered me a unique perspective. Two things stood out. The first is the problem of comments, where strangers, even in the most mundane of articles, launched into intense, acrimonious infighting. In most cases, commenters bypassed argumentation for convenient name-calling or escalated a civil discussion by posting contextless claims with no links or source. In many cases, it appeared that a post from one user would get shared by a friend into his or her network, where it would [attract] strangers.

The more I scrolled through them, the more comments felt like a central and intractable issue. Unlike links to outside articles, comments aren’t subject to third-party fact checks or outside moderation. They are largely invisible to those people who study or attempt to police the platform.

Yet in my experience they were a primary source of debunked claims, harassment and divisive rhetoric. I showed one comment thread to a colleague who doesn’t use Facebook and my colleague found it shocking. “Facebook created a town hall for fighting,” they said. “It’s almost like if you were building a machine to make a country divisive and extreme — if you were to sit down and plan what that would look like —- it would be this.”

[Facebook’s] evolution, from a friendly social networking site into the world’s largest information platform, is the source of its biggest problems.

Sifting through Mr. Young and Ms. Pierce’s feeds and talking to them about what I saw, it became clear that the two found themselves tormented as a result of decisions they made in their early days on the platform. Both explained that they joined to reconnect with old friends.

Like most of us, they gave little thought to the connections they made. Mr. Young added friends he hadn’t spoken to in decades. When Ms. Pierce joined a nonprofit organization she accepted dozens of friend requests — some from people she’d met only in passing. “I meet people on airplanes all the time and we exchange Facebook handles,” she told me.

But as Facebook evolved, these weak connections became unlikely information nodes. Mr. Young and Ms. Pierce were now getting their commentary from people they hardly knew, whose politics had once been unknown or illegible.

“When Facebook first started it made me feel so good. It feels like I signed up for one thing and it’s become something totally different,” Ms. Pierce said. . . .

Joan Donovan, the research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy . . . , described this phenomenon as what happens when “social-networking sites transformed into social media,” creating “a digital economy built on engagement.” Dr. Donovan argues that this decision spawned the algorithmic echo chambers we now live in and created a fertile environment for our information crisis.

For Mr. Young, the fallout of these decisions is painful. After weeks of watching his feed, I presented him with some of the most notorious posters in his feed. When I read aloud the name of one Facebook friend who constantly shared debunked claims, often with language intended to provoke, he sighed. He described the person as a longtime friend and neighbor who was once so close they practically lived at each other’s houses. Now, he spends his time debating whether it’s worth the energy to stop the friend from sharing conspiracy theories. . . .

The psychological toll of watching friends lose touch with reality has both Mr. Young and Ms. Pierce re-evaluating their choice to spend so much time on the platform. Mr. Young, for his part, tried to stay off during election week; Ms. Pierce is heartened that her feed has become less toxic after her Facebook sabbatical and is planning another. “My emotional and mental state improves greatly the further away I get from this place,” she told me.

Even if both manage to stay away from Facebook for good, their stories are just two in a sea of billions. No story is the same because no feed is the same. And yet these same dynamics that tortured my two participants — a sea of contextless news and acrimonious comments revealing their neighbors’ worst selves — are on display for millions of Americans every day. . . .

Unquote.

So what can be done?

  1. CLOSE YOUR FACEBOOK ACCOUNT. IT’S THE EASIEST AND MOST EFFECTIVE SOLUTION.
  2. UNFOLLOW EVERYONE YOU AREN’T CLOSE TO OR WHO SENDS YOU CRAP.
  3. DON’T READ THE COMMENTS, UNLESS THE SUBJECT IS CATS OR DOGS.

One thing Facebook could do is close the accounts of the people whose lies are shared the most. Researchers have found that a small group of social media accounts are responsible for the spread of a disproportionate amount of false information [New York Times].

But since Facebook has no morality and Republicans revel in the lying, see the list above, especially item 1.

One of Those Disgusting Facebook Stories I Could Hardly Bear to Read

Facebook is a right-wing noise machine and the sooner everyone boycotts it, the better. There are alternatives. You can do a search for “Facebook replacement” and invite your valued contacts to follow you there. Or simply start using this terrific app instead:  Telegram.

This is from the informative newsletter Popular Info published by investigative journalist Judd Legum (he’s especially good at getting corporations to stop sponsoring TV racists):

The success of The Daily Wire, the website run by right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro, on Facebook is mind-boggling. The site has a small staff and primarily aggregates content from Twitter and other news outlets. Typically, its articles are very short, usually less than 500 words, and contain no original reporting.

And yet, last month, The Daily Wire was the seventh-ranked publisher on Facebook, according to the analytics service NewsWhip. Articles published in The Daily Wire attracted 60,616,745 engagements in May. Engagement is a combination of shares, likes, and comments, and is a way of quantifying distribution on Facebook. The reach of The Daily Wire’s articles was equal to the New York Times (60,722,727) and more than the Washington Post (49,219,525).

But that actually understates how well The Daily Wire does on Facebook. While the New York Times published 15,587 articles in May, and the Washington Post published 8,048, The Daily Wire published just 1,141. On a per article basis, The Daily Wire receives more distribution than any other major publisher. And it’s not close.

https___bucketeer-e05bbc84-baa3-437e-9518-adb32be77984.s3.amazonaws.com_public_images_6efbcae8-3ec5-4a0f-8f4f-4327e8ef78a4_1321x817

What explains The Daily Wire’s phenomenal success on Facebook? Popular Information revealed part of the answer last October. But the full story is much darker.

Popular Information has discovered a network of large Facebook pages — each built by exploiting racial bias, religious bigotry, and violence — that systematically promote content from The Daily Wire. These pages, some of which have over 2 million followers, do not disclose a business relationship with The Daily Wire. But they all post content from The Daily Wire ten or more times each day. Moreover, these pages post the exact same content from The Daily Wire at the exact same time.

The undisclosed relationship not only helps explain The Daily Wire’s unlikely success on Facebook but also appears to violate Facebook’s rules.

How to convert bigotry and fear into shares and likes

The network of large Facebook pages promoting The Daily Wire are all run by Corey and Christy Pepple, who are best known as the creators of Mad World News. Facebook pages controlled by the Pepples include Mad World News (2,176,003 followers), The New Resistance (2,857,876 followers), Right Stuff (610,809 followers), America First (577,753 followers), and American Patriot (447,799 followers).

The reach of these pages is massive. Content posted to these five pages has generated more than 31 million engagements on Facebook over the last three months, according to CrowdTangle, an analytics service owned by Facebook. To put that in perspective, the reach of the network over this time period exceeds the New York Times (28 million engagements), the Washington Post (20 million engagements), and HuffPost (19 million engagements).

How did the pages like Mad World News and The New Resistance grow so big? They did it by exploiting racism, religious bigotry, and violence.

Here is how it works. Most of the content on the five pages in this network consists of links to MadWorldNews.com and TadHaps.com, two websites owned by the Pepples. These sites identify incendiary stories — that are frequently months or years old — that prey on prejudice and fear. The sites then rewrite the stories with no indication that the story is old. This generates a “new” link that is able to thrive in Facebook’s algorithm.

For example, TadHaps.com published a story on June 19, 2020, with the headline “Family Displays ‘Southern Pride’ Sign, Stranger Confronts Them With Gun.” The article describes how a man named Mark Wilson was standing on the side of the road with his family, waving Confederate flags. According to Wilson, a man drove up and pointed a gun at him and other family members. The man then drove away without harming anyone.

It’s not mentioned in TadHaps article, but the incident occurred five years ago, in 2015.

On June 20, 2020, the TadHaps article was then posted to Mad World News, The New Resistance, Right Stuff, America First, and American Patriot Facebook pages. It quickly racked up about 5,000 total engagements on Facebook.

Other stories published on TadHaps in the last few days include a remorseless Black gang member who dragged a police officer behind a stolen car, a fast food restaurant that was changed the name of menu items to be more respectful of Muslims, and a 13-year-old girl who was raped by five men. None of the stories mention that these incidents occurred months or years old.

The purpose of TadHaps is not to inform but to manipulate the Facebook algorithm by recycling old stories that elicit emotional reactions from conservatives.

The Daily Wire’s tactics and Facebook’s rules

Why do these toxic Facebook pages keep sharing content from The Daily Wire? Do the Pepples just really like Ben Shapiro’s site? The Daily Wire did not respond to a request for comment. But the behavior of these pages strongly suggests that The Daily Wire and Mad World News, LLC, the company owned by Corey and Christy Pepple, have a business relationship.

The Daily Wire is the only website outside of those owned by the Pepples that is shared by these five pages. And each of the five Facebook pages shares at least ten Daily Wire links every day. Conspicuously, the Facebook pages share the exact same links from The Daily Wire at the exact same time.

For example, all five pages shared this article from The Daily Wire on Aunt Jemima at 7:30 PM on June 19, 2020.

https___bucketeer-e05bbc84-baa3-437e-9518-adb32be77984.s3.amazonaws.com_public_images_e31e1c06-1ae9-470d-a271-e726a4218067_1600x1160

These pages all shared this article from The Daily Wire from Chick-Fil-a at 9:30 PM on June 18, 2020.

https___bucketeer-e05bbc84-baa3-437e-9518-adb32be77984.s3.amazonaws.com_public_images_2a0a2be3-3e7a-49b9-a743-883818849717_1600x1160

The pattern repeats over and over again, ten times or more every day. It’s behavior that strongly suggests that Mad World News, LLC is being paid to promote content from The Daily Wire.

If that’s the case, The Daily Wire could be violating Facebook’s rules. Facebook allows pages to be paid to post content, but the sponsorship must be disclosed using Facebook’s branded content tool.

We define branded content as a creator or publisher’s content that features or is influenced by a business partner for an exchange of value. Creators must use the branded content tool to tag the featured third party product, brand, or business partner with their prior consent. Branded content may only be posted by Facebook Pages and profiles and Instagram accounts with access to the branded content tool.

The activity also appears to violate Facebook’s prohibition on coordinated inauthentic behavior, which includes a ban on activity to “artificially boost the popularity of content.”

In response to an inquiry from Popular Information, a Facebook spokesperson said it investigated the behavior of these pages and found no violation of Facebook’s rules….

The notorious Mad World News

There is no reason that the network of Facebook pages run by Corey and Christy Pepple should have flown beneath Facebook’s radar. Years ago, the Pepples became notorious for exploiting Facebook with poisonous content.

At first, Mad World News was effectively the couple’s blog: they rewrote published articles, added their own commentary as “Christian Conservatives,” and shared their posts on Facebook. As the Pepples’ blog gained traction on Facebook, they began including digital ads and experimenting with the type of stories they featured. Divisive stories, in particular, performed disturbingly well. “We [all] like division…We thrive on it,” said Christy Pepple to The New York Times’ The Daily in 2018. At the time, the site drew roughly 20 million views each month. One month the Pepples made more in digital ad revenue from the site than their combined salaries in the previous year, according to The Daily.

Most of this revenue, however, is generated from deceptive, if not outright false, content. NewsGuard reports that Mad World News repeatedly makes “distorted or misleading claims, including about discredited conspiracy theories”…

In May of this year, NewsGuard flagged a Mad World News piece that accused Anthony Fauci of conspiring with Bill Gates as part of “sinister plans to ‘set up’ President Donald Trump.”

The outlet frequently runs stories targeting Black, Muslim, and immigrant populations. Recent story headlines include: “Atlanta Cops Walk Out In Protest Over Democrat DA’s ‘Sick Secret’ In Brooks Case,” “NYC Black Man Knocks Down 92-year-Old White Woman, Thanks to BLM & De Blasio,” and “Millions Donated to ‘Defund the Police’ Secretly Directed To Biden’s Campaign.”

Despite this, Mad World News’ stories rarely elicit “disputed” labels or disclaimers from Facebook. On the site’s “About Us” page, the platform attempts to excuse itself of fact-checking procedures, claiming that its content “expresses a personal opinion, advocates a point of view, or is self-promotional” and should be treated as such “for the purpose of fact-checking.”

The Daily Wire’s history of playing by its own rules

The Daily Wire’s apparent business relationship with Mad World News isn’t the first time the site has been caught flouting Facebook’s rules. Last October, Popular Information revealed a clandestine network of 14 large Facebook pages that purported to be independent but exclusively promote content from The Daily Wire in a coordinated fashion.

The network clearly violated Facebook’s prohibition on “inauthentic behavior,” which includes concealing “a Page’s purpose by misleading users about the ownership or control of that Page.” But Facebook refused to take action. “Our investigation found that these are real pages run by real people in the U.S. and do not violate our policies,” the company said.

Months later, after Facebook implemented a new policy around page ownership, The Daily Wire was forced to acknowledge it owned and controlled 13 of the 14 pages in the network. Facebook has still taken no action.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has a relationship with Shapiro, who Zuckerberg has hosted at his home. According to a source who has spoken with Shapiro, Zuckerberg and Shapiro remain in direct communication.

Unquote.

Meanwhile, some good news for a change. From The Washington Post:

A massive shift away from Trump in six key states indicates serious trouble for his reelection bid. White voters, young voters, old voters and independents are all much less inclined to vote for him in battleground states.

It’s too soon for Happy Dancing and we can’t un-elect Zuckerberg, but we can regulate the hell out of Facebook.

Sacha Baron Cohen on the Greatest Propaganda Machines in History

The comedian spoke out this week. The problem he discusses may be insurmountable, given that anyone with an internet connection has the technological ability to communicate with everyone else who has one. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging that more people are demanding reasonable limits on the power of these gargantuan, unregulated companies.

The Guardian has a full transcript.

 

Who We’re Up Against

The [Toddler] Make America Great Again Committee (“TMAGAC”) is a joint fundraising committee composed of Donald J. [Toddler] for President, Inc. (“DJTP”) and the Republican National Committee (“RNC”). I don’t recommend visiting their site.

Last week, a journalist shared one of the committee’s Facebook advertisements. The text reads:

The far left knows that they have NO CHANCE of defeating President [Toddler] in 2020, so they’ve resorted to violence to try to silence the MILLIONS of American Patriots who voted for him.

We need to show radical left that they will NEVER be able to silence us with their violence and their hatred.

EItYBD6X0AANcrf

I suppose by “far left” and “radical left” they mean the Democratic Party, not the Communist Party USA or the Socialists Workers. Hatred? You bet. Some hatred is deserved. Violence? Not at all.

This advertisement was paid for by our president’s campaign committee and one of our two major political parties. Facebook let them run it. These are the kind of people we’re up against.

Facebook, Google, Twitter: You Are “Crime Scenes”

British journalist Carole Cadwalladr has taken fifteen important minutes to explain how the tech giants are damaging democracy.

One excellent point she makes is that these massive corporations refuse to divulge which misleading political advertisements are being directed at which voters, and who is behind those advertisements, and how much money is being spent on them. As a result, the British laws that limit campaign spending and have been in effect for 100 years no longer work, thanks to the “gods of Silicon Valley”. She addresses Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and others directly:

Liberal democracy is broken. And you broke it. This is not democracy. Spreading lies in darkness paid for with illegal cash from God knows where. It’s subversion. And you are accessories to it.

Of the Democrats seeking the presidency, Senator Elizabeth Warren is the one who has offered a plan to rein in the tech giants. You might consider donating to her campaign.

Meanwhile, give Carole Cadwalladr fifteen minutes of your time. She is worth listening to.