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Facebook letting fake news spreaders profit, investigators claim

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Facebook is allowing users to profit from the spread of potentially dangerous false theories and misinformation about the pandemic and vaccines, including deploying money-raising tools on pages with content flagged up by the social media giant’s own factcheckers.

An investigation has found 430 pages – followed by 45 million people – using Facebook’s tools, including virtual “shops” and fan subscriptions, while spreading false information about Covid-19 or vaccinations.

The findings come despite a promise the platform made last year that no user or company should directly profit from false information about immunisation against Covid-19.

Facebook generally does not share this income, but it does occasionally take a cut, and benefits financially from users engaging with content and staying on its services, exposing them to more ads.

The research, by the London-headquartered Bureau of Investigative Journalism, is likely to have uncovered only a tiny snapshot of the vast amount of monetised misinformation on Facebook related to the pandemic and vaccines.

A Facebook spokesman said the company was investigating the examples brought to its attention, and had “removed a small number of the pages shared with us for violating our policies”.

However, many of the posts identified as misinformation do not violate Facebook rules, the spokesman added, without providing any details.

“Our initial investigation shows a large number of the pages flagged had zero violations against our harmful misinformation policies, and we’d dispute the overall accuracy of the data being provided,” he said.

The pages identified included sites for comedians and religious leaders, social media personalities and traditional media reporters.

There are a large number of alternative health sites, focused on a range of subjects from nutrition to yoga and wellness. Only a minority are clearly focused on the pandemic, or anti-vaccine sentiment. The others are sharing content to broader audiences.

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Seven languages are represented – including German, Hebrew, Polish and Spanish – reaching readers around the world.

More than 260 of the pages the bureau identified have posted misinformation about vaccines. The remainder include false information on the pandemic, on vaccines more broadly, or a combination of the two. More than 20 pages identified have gained Facebook’s blue tick signalling authenticity.

For Facebook, offering ways to make money is probably a route to encouraging people to use its platform rather than its competitors’, according to Dr Claire Wardle, executive director of First Draft, a US-based non-profit organisation fighting online misinformation, which contributed to the bureau’s research.

However, Facebook can also profit from the popularity of brands and individuals who spread misinformation. It takes a cut of 5% to 30% on its Stars currency, used by fans to tip creators who stream live video.

Facebook also briefly took up to 30% of fees paid by new supporters from January last year, but reversed this in August.

The bureau found two pages using Stars: An0maly and Sid Roth’s It’s Supernatural, a religious site which has blamed the pandemic on abortion and has featured guests describing a dream in which God showed them the virus being created in a Chinese lab. Between them, the pages have reached more than 2.6 million people.

The site run by An0maly, real name AJ Feleski, who describes himself as a “news analyst & hip-hop artist”, is one of the most influential pages sharing misinformation to be identified by the investigation, with more than 1.5 million followers.

A video from last March, in which he questions if the pandemic is “bio-terrorism”, is one of at least three posts on the page that Facebook’s factcheckers have flagged for containing false or partly false information.

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Yet even on Saturday a strap appears under the videos inviting viewers to pay to “Become a supporter” and “Support An0maly and enjoy special benefits”.

Facebook’s policies for creators using monetisation tools include rules against misinformation, especially medical misinformation.

In November, Facebook, along with Google and Twitter, agreed a joint statement with the UK government committing to “the principle that no user or company should directly profit from Covid-19 vaccine mis/disinformation. This removes an incentive for this type of content to be promoted, produced and be circulated.”

The bureau’s findings suggest Facebook has breached this agreement, as well as failed to enforce its own policies.

A Facebook spokesman said: “Pages which repeatedly violate our community standards – including those which spread misinformation about Covid-19 and vaccines – are prohibited from monetising on our platform.

“We take aggressive steps to remove Covid misinformation that leads to imminent physical harm, including false information about approved vaccines.”

The company removed 12 million pieces of Covid misinformation between March and October, and placed factcheck warning labels on 167 million other pieces of content, he added.

Organisations including the UN, the World Health Organization and Unesco said in September that online misinformation “continues to undermine the global response and jeopardises measures to control the pandemic”.

Some of the pages identified in the investigation also directed their followers to more extreme content that has been largely scrubbed from social media.

Veganize, a Portuguese-language page based in Brazil with 129,000 followers, offers paid supporter subscriptions.

A “pinned post”, which is fixed at the top of the page even as new content is added, carries a link to a collection of files hosted on Google including “Plandemic”, a pair of conspiracy-laden, thoroughly discredited videos that briefly went viral last summer before social networks made strenuous efforts to remove them.

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Groups spreading information flagged by factcheckers as false have also used Facebook to fundraise. The Informed Consent Action Network (Ican), a US non-profit, is one of the most well-funded organisations in the US opposing vaccinations.

Facebook and YouTube removed pages for Highwire, an online show run by Ican founder Del Bigtree that made claims repeatedly rated as false by factcheckers, for which Ican says it is suing the tech companies.

Yet despite removing the Highwire page, Facebook still allows Ican to solicit donations from its more than 44,000 followers on a page that has had at least two posts flagged by factcheckers. According to its page, Ican has raised almost £24,000 since February 2020.

Facebook must approve organisations signing up to raise funds and vaccine misinformation is explicitly cited as a reason that fundraising may be removed from an organisation.

Wardle, from First Draft, believes the money-making systems Facebook offers could encourage people to spread misinformation.

“It is human nature. We know one of the motivations is financial,” she said.

“They have started to believe these things, but when you are in that circle, you also realise there is a way to make money, then you realise that the more you get hits the more money you are making. It’s more than the dopamine hit – it’s dopamine plus dollars.”

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Facebook Adds New Trend Insights in Creator Studio, Which Could Help Shape Your Posting Strategy

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Facebook’s looking to provide more content insight within Creator Studio with the rollout of a new ‘Inspiration Hub’ element, which highlights trending content and hashtags within categories related to your business Page.

Facebook Inspiration Hub

As you can see in these screenshots, posted by social media expert Matt Navarra, when it becomes available to you, you’ll be able to access the new Inspiration Hub from the Home tab in Creator Studio.

At the right side of the screen, you can see the first of the new insights, with trending hashtags and videos from the last 24 hours, posted by Pages similar to yours, displayed above a ‘See more’ prompt.

When you tap through to the new hub, you’ll have a range of additional filters to check out trending content from across Facebook, including Page category, content type, region, and more.

Facebook Inspiration Hub

That could be hugely valuable in learning what Facebook users are responding to, and what people within your target market are engaging with in the app.

The Hub also includes insights into trending hashtags, within your chosen timeframe, which may further assist in tapping into trending discussions.

Facebook Inspiration Hub

How valuable hashtags are on Facebook is still up for debate, but you’ll also note that you can filter the displayed results by platform, so you can additionally display Instagram hashtag trends as well, which could be very valuable in maximizing your reach.

Much of this type of info has been available within CrowdTangle, Facebook’s analytics platform for journalists, for some time, but not everyone can access CrowdTangle data, which could make this an even more valuable proposition for many marketers.

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Of course, overall performance really relates to your own creative, and thinking through the action that you want your audience to take when reading your posts. But in terms of detecting new content trends, including hashtag usage, caption length, videos versus image posts, and more, there’s a lot that could be gleaned from these tools and filters.

It’s a significant analytics addition – we’ve asked Facebook for more info on the rollout of the new option, and whether it’s already beyond test mode, etc. We’ll update this post if/when we hear back.

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Meta Updates Policy on Cryptocurrency Ads, Opening the Door to More Crypto Promotions in its Apps

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With cryptocurrencies gaining momentum, in line with the broader Web 3.0 push, Meta has today announced an update to its ad policies around cryptocurrencies, which will open the door to more crypto advertisers on its platforms.

As per Meta:

Starting today, we’re updating our eligibility criteria for running ads about cryptocurrency on our platform by expanding the number of regulatory licenses we accept from three to 27. We are also making the list of eligible licenses publicly available on our policy page.”

Essentially, in order to run any crypto ads in Meta’s apps, that currency needs to adhere to regional licensing provisions, which vary by nation. With crypto becoming more accepted, Meta’s now looking to enable more crypto companies to publish ads on its platform, which will provide expanded opportunity for recognized crypto providers to promote their products, while also enabling Meta to make more money from crypto ads.

“Previously, advertisers could submit an application and include information such as any licenses they obtained, whether they are traded on a public stock exchange, and other relevant public background on their business. However, over the years the cryptocurrency landscape has matured and stabilized and experienced an increase in government regulation, which has helped to set clearer responsibilities and expectations for the industry. Going forward, we will be moving away from using a variety of signals to confirm eligibility and instead requiring one of these 27 licenses.”

Is that a good move? Well, as Meta notes, the crypto marketplace is maturing, and there’s now much wider recognition of cryptocurrencies as a legitimate form of payment. But they’re also not supported by most local financial regulators, which reduced transaction protection and oversight, which also brings a level of risk in such process.

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But then again, all crypto providers are required to clearly outline any such risks, and most also highlight the ongoing market volatility in the space. This expanded level of overall transparency means that most people who are investing in crypto have at least some awareness of these elements, which likely does diminish the risk factor in such promotions within Meta’s apps.

But as crypto adoption continues to expand, more of these risks will become apparent, and while much of the crypto community is built on good faith, and a sense of community around building something new, there are questions as to how much that can hold at scale, and what that will then mean for evolving scams and criminal activity, especially as more vulnerable investors are brought into the mix.

Broader promotional capacity through Meta’s apps will certainly help to boost exposure in this respect – though again, the relative risk factors are lessened by expanded regulatory oversight outside of the company.

You can read more about Meta’s expanded crypto ad regulations here.

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Meta Outlines Evolving Safety Measures in Messaging as it Seeks to Allay Fears Around the Expansion of E2E Encryption

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Amid rising concern about Meta’s move to roll out end-to-end encryption by default to all of its messaging apps, Meta’s Global Head of Safety Antigone Davis has today sought to provide a level of reassurance that Meta is indeed aware of the risks and dangers that such protection can pose, and that it is building safeguards into its processes to protect against potential misuse.

Though the measures outlined don’t exactly address all the issues raised by analysts and safety groups around the world.

As a quick recap, back in 2019, Facebook announced its plan to merge the messaging functionalities of Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp, which would then provide users with a universal inbox, with all of your message threads from each app accessible on either platform.

The idea is that this will simplify cross-connection, while also opening the door to more opportunities for brands to connect with users in the messaging tool of their choice – but it also, inherently, means that the data protection method for its messaging tools must rise to the level of WhatsApp, its most secure messaging platform, which already includes E2E encryption as the default.

Various child safety experts raised the alarm, and several months after Facebook’s initial announcement, representatives from the UK, US and Australian Governments sent an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg requesting that the company abandon its integration plan.

Meta has pushed ahead, despite specific concerns that the expansion of encryption will see its messaging tools used by child trafficking and exploitation groups, and now, as it closes in on the next stage, Meta’s working to counter such claims, with Davis outlining six key elements which she believes will ensure safety within this push.

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Davis has explained the various measures that Meta has added on this front, including:

  • Detection tools to stop adults from repeatedly setting up new profiles in an attempt to connect minors that they don’t know
  • Safety notices in Messenger, which provide tips on spotting suspicious behavior
  • The capacity to filter messages with selected keywords on Instagram
  • More filtering options in chat requests to help avoid unwanted contact
  • Improved education prompts to help detect spammers and scammers in messages
  • New processes to make it easier to report potential harm, including an option to select “involves a child”, which will then prioritize the report for review and action

Meta messaging security options

Which are all good, all important steps in detection, while Davis also notes that its reporting process “decrypts portions of the conversation that were previously encrypted and unavailable to us so that we can take immediate action if violations are detected”.

That’ll no doubt raise an eyebrow or two among WhatsApp users – but the problem here is that, overall, the broader concern is that such protections will facilitate usage by criminal groups, and the reliance on self-reporting in this respect is not going to have any impact on these networks operating, at scale, under a more protected messaging framework within Meta’s app eco-system.

Governments have called for ‘backdoor access’ to break Meta’s encryption for investigations into such activity, which Meta says is both not possible and will not be built into its future framework. The elements outlined by Davis do little to address this specific need, and without the capacity to better detect such, it’s hard to see any of the groups opposed to Meta’s expanded encryption changing their stance, and accepting that the merging of all of the platform’s DM options will not also see a rise in criminal activity organized via the same apps.

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Of course, the counterargument could be that encryption is already available on WhatsApp, and that criminal activity of this type can already be undertaken within WhatsApp alone. But with a combined user count of 3.58 billion people per month across its family of apps, that’s a significantly broader interconnection of people than WhatsApp’s 2 billion active users, which, arguably, could open the door to far more potential harm and danger in this respect.

Really, there’s no right answer here. Privacy advocates will argue that encryption should be the standard, and that more people are actually more protected, on balance, by enhanced security measures. But there is also an undeniable risk in shielding even more criminal groups from detection.

Either way, right now, Meta seems determined to push ahead with the plan, which will weld all of its messaging tools together, and also make it more difficult to break-up its network, if any antitrust decisions don’t go Meta’s way, and it’s potentially pressed to sell-off Instagram or WhatsApp as a result.

But expect more debate to be had, in more countries, as Meta continues to justify its decision, and regulatory and law enforcement groups seek more options to help maintain a level of accessibility for criminal investigations and detection.

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