The standard knowledge across the “widely viewed content report” that Facebook launched final week is that it obscured greater than it revealed. The firm’s effort to reveal that the majority customers don’t frequently see divisive information tales of their feeds obtained widespread criticism for providing solely the highest-level view of the info doable. The most-shared area on Facebook is YouTube.com? Great, thanks.
But in current days, I’ve spent extra time trying on the information Facebook really did share. And whereas it’s true that it tells us little about hot-button points just like the unfold of COVID-19 misinformation or the rise of vaccine hesitancy, the report arguably reveals one thing simply as damning: virtually the entire most-viewed posts on Facebook over the previous quarter had been successfully plagiarized from elsewhere. And a number of the similar audience-building ways that allowed Russian interference to flourish on the platform in 2016 proceed to be efficient.
Today, I need to have a look at two elements of the info. First, we’ll have a look at the most-viewed posts on Facebook over the previous quarter to see the place they initially got here from. Second, we’ll have a look at one of the widespread hyperlinks on the platform, which can be working a grift on US army veterans.
It’s laborious to give you a good suggestion for a viral social media put up. Which might be why most of Facebook’s hottest pages spent the final quarter stealing their concepts from elsewhere.
Facebook’s report particulars the highest 20 most generally considered posts on the community over the previous three months. One of the posts was deleted earlier than Facebook revealed it. Of the remaining 19, although, solely 4 seem to have been authentic. The remaining 15 had been revealed in a minimum of one different place first, and had been then re-uploaded to Facebook, typically with small adjustments.
Take the No. 1 put up within the report, a meme from the motivational speaker and writer Gaur Gopal Das. It’s a jumble of letters and phrases beneath the message “First three words u see are your reality.” It was initially posted greater than a 12 months in the past, however continues to rack up views: 80.6 million people have seen it to date.
But it wasn’t authentic to Das. The meme had been posted to Twitter two weeks earlier by the Ghanaian rapper M.anifest. (It could not have been authentic to M.anifest, both; the picture he posted seems pretty distressed, as if it had been copied and re-copied many occasions. His tweet is the earliest occasion of the meme I may discover utilizing Google’s reverse-image search, although.)
How about No. 2? In April, musician Ace Gutta posted a picture studying “I’m old But I look Young Challenge. Drop a pic 30 and up,” together with a hyperlink to his Instagram. More than 61 million people noticed it, and 5 million replied. But different people had been issuing this “challenge” throughout Facebook in 2020, according to a search I did — right here’s a put up from one person final October. Here’s one other one from March.
Next up: in May, the Facebook web page for Texas’ hottest morning present, Daytime with Kimberly & Esteban, dared to ask: “What is something you will never eat, no matter how hungry you get?” 58.6 million people had been confronted with this query, and a couple of.7 million of them replied. Versions of this query have been floating round Twitter and meme pages for years.
No. 5 discovered “wife, mom, author” Christina Watts beginning a battle over whether or not sugar belongs on spaghetti that was visited upon 58.6 million souls; the comic Steve Harvey had tweeted the identical query lower than per week earlier.
It takes till the sixth put up till we discover one thing vaguely authentic — a message from President Biden that obtained 52.8 million views. He seems to have cross-posted the message from Twitter, identical to his predecessor did.
It roughly goes on like this for the remainder of the highest 20: a lot of viral questions stolen from Reddit, Quora, Twitter or different websites, rewarded with large engagement on Facebook.
Maybe at this level you’re rolling your eyes. So some dumb meme pages stole memes from different dumb meme pages — what’s the massive deal? And I’ll enable that the Facebook pages of Texas-based daytime discuss reveals sometimes don’t observe the zero-tolerance coverage on plagiarism that journalists do.
Moreover, Facebook has lengthy been house to reappropriated content material, from the freebooting scandal throughout 2017’s pivot to video to the more moderen phenomenon of Instagram’s Reels being flooded with movies bearing TikTok watermarks.
But this type of dumb, low-cost progress hacking ought to sound acquainted to anybody who paid even passing consideration to the 2016 election. Russia’s notorious Internet Research Agency commissioned a troll military to construct up huge followings on innocuous-seeming Facebook pages utilizing all kinds of engagement bait, then regularly shifted these pages to start sharing extra divisive political memes.
That’s all a lot tougher to do now, because of a wide range of measures Facebook has taken to make it harder for people to disguise their identities or nations of origin. The firm now routinely removes networks of pages the place the creators’ identities are suspect. And it’s value saying that in the newest election, inauthentic habits of the 2016 selection didn’t play a big position.
Most importantly, Facebook now has a coverage in opposition to “abusive audience building” — switching matters and repeatedly altering a web page’s title for the aim of rising a following.
But it appears notable that for home actors, the ways not solely work, however stay the best solution to attain a big viewers 5 years later. Steal some questions that went viral elsewhere, spam them in your web page, and presto: you’re one of many most-viewed hyperlinks for the whole quarter on the world’s largest social community.
I talked about all this with the corporate immediately, and it mentioned that re-posting content material from elsewhere doesn’t violate its insurance policies. (Among different issues, it might possible be extraordinarily tough to police.) In order for Facebook to take away posts like these, the corporate mentioned, there must be one thing misleading about them: mendacity about who posted them, or the place they reside, for instance.
Facebook has come a great distance in eradicating inauthentic people from the platform. But what I might contemplate inauthentic content material dominates the most-viewed posts on the location. In the brief time period, these posts could show to be much less dangerous than the COVID misinformation and Big Lie rabble-rousing that we get labored up about extra usually.
Over the long run, although, they would appear to offer a motivated adversary with a broad assault floor.
There’s one thing else within the information that bothers me — one thing that hints at a number of the darker forces within the ecosystem. The plagiarists who dominate Facebook’s high 20 hyperlinks are possible doing it primarily for clout and ill-gotten viewers progress. But a number of the different characters right here seem to have extra direct financial incentives.
Ever since Facebook’s report got here out, commentators have famous the massive variety of spam networks current within the listing of most considered hyperlinks. (This is separate from the listing of most considered posts described above; the hyperlinks listing contains cumulative views for a hyperlink throughout Facebook; the previous listing counts solely views for a person put up.) Most memorably, the researcher Ethan Zuckerman explored the origins of the No. 9 hyperlink on Facebook’s listing, a talking company of former Green Bay Packers gamers that obtained 87 million views because of gamers including the hyperlink to low-effort meme posts.
My eyes had been drawn to the Fifteenth-most considered hyperlink, which results in an internet storefront promoting a Vietnam memorial flag. (“Normally, $24.00. But because you are a hero, all you need to pay is $20.00 and you can have a collectors Item.”)
The hyperlinks are promoted through an infinite sequence of memes posted each few hours to Facebook pages marketed to veterans. You’ll discover it on the “Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans” web page and, extra logically, the Vietnam Veterans web page. Elsewhere, the Desert Storm Veterans web page hyperlinks to the identical on-line storefront, promoting a Desert Storm memorial flag.
Together, they’ve greater than 350,000 followers. And their hyperlink obtained 37 million views over three months. Who runs these pages? Are they veterans? The pages bear no clues, and the directors didn’t reply to messages from me immediately. (One of them did see my message, although, according to Facebook Messenger.)
But they regarded acquainted to Kristofer Goldsmith, who has spent years investigating the way in which unhealthy actors will pose as members of army communities to run numerous grifts and affect operations. In reality, he mentioned, he had beforehand reported the community to Facebook. Among different issues, he mentioned, networks like this usually steal plagiarize memes from genuine army communities to hawk merchandise.
“It’s profiting off the death and suffering of service members,” mentioned Goldsmith, a former investigator for Vietnam Veterans of America who now runs an open-source intelligence service named Sparverius. (It’s named after the American kestrel — “the smallest predatory bird in the Western hemisphere,” Goldsmith advised me.)
Goldsmith mentioned that Facebook had been sluggish to intervene in instances the place web page homeowners misrepresented themselves as veterans so as to promote merchandise to members of army households. “As someone who has been trying to help Facebook understand that this is harmful to my community for three, going on four years now, I’m beyond upset that I still have to do this,” he mentioned.
Facebook advised me it might look into the community. It famous that it’s usually tough to discern a web page proprietor’s intent from the content material posted, and within the absence of proof of misleading content material, it may be hesitant to behave. People have completely different opinions on what counts as “spam”; the dividing line isn’t all the time clear.
At the identical time, the community of pages right here appears purpose-built to evade spam detection. By posting heart-rending memes focused at service members and their households, they’ve made it a lot much less possible that the memes will get reported as spam, at the same time as they put up the hyperlink to the identical low-cost flag each single hour.
Whatever the case, Facebook’s listing of widespread posts and hyperlinks inform the identical story: the way in which to succeed on the platform is by copying another person’s thought.
And in the event you’ve studied the historical past of Facebook, maybe that gained’t come as a lot of a shock.
This column was co-published with Platformer, a each day publication about Big Tech and democracy.