UK Lobbyist's Long-Running Astroturf Efforts Shows Facebook Will Never Be Able To Stop Fake News, Ban All Conservatives

from the Facebook-shows-users-the-radar,-provides-low-altitude-flying-tools dept

For all the talk about social media platforms and their supposed anti-conservative bias, it seems like plenty of conservatives are doing just fine. Once you eliminate a short list of fringe grifters and Nazi fans, you're left with plenty of big name conservatives who still enjoy the use of multiple platforms. Even Dennis Prager of PragerU is struggling to make a federal case of YouTube's moderation of a small percentage of his videos; asking the court to ignore the forest of views for a few pruned trees.

Moderation at scale is hard and every new wrinkle demanded by politicians and activists results in another string of failures. Jim Waterson of The Guardian digs in deep into the details of another Facebook moderation failure -- one that allowed newly-minted Prime Minister Boris Johnson's lobbying buddy to skirt rules meant to inform users about paid political campaigning efforts.

The news follows the Guardian’s April report that Crosby’s company was behind a series of hugely influential pro-Brexit Facebook groups, which spent as much as £1m seeding the idea of a no-deal exit from the EU in the minds of the British public.

But the latest revelations reveal that the company has pursued that approach more broadly, in the service of previously unreported corporate interests and foreign governments.

And they expose a major flaw in Facebook’s political transparency tools, which make it possible for Crosby’s company – which boasts on its website that it deploys “the latest tools in digital engagement” – to use the social network to run professional-looking “news” pages reaching tens of millions of people on highly contentious topics, without apparently disclosing that they are being overseen by CTF Partners on behalf of paying clients.

The loophole CTF used to engage in multiple astroturfing campaigns isn't really a loophole. It's part of the design. That it was used in this fashion makes it appear to be a loophole, but when the business is engagement, it only makes sense to allow businesses to run multiple pages from a single account.

The minimal reporting requirements on campaign pages only requires a public face for pages -- one person who can be viewed as the entity behind the content. Business manager pages don't even require this. The astroturf campaigns originated from a business manager account. Most of the pages posted legitimate news articles, making them appear to be purely concerned with spreading information. Behind the scenes, CTF was gathering data on views, reactions, and sharing, figuring out which hot buttons to start pushing once the objective facade was dropped.

The Guardian's reporting has resulted in many of these pages being memory-holed by CTF. Even so, Facebook's view on the coordinated astroturf campaigns is that they did not violate Facebook's terms of use, or even its new focus on disrupting the flow of "fake news."

[Facebook] said the network of pages pretending to be news sources on behalf of corporate and state clients did not break their rules on “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”, a term used to shut down disinformation networks overseen by foreign governments in Russia and Iran. This is because Crosby’s employees used their real names on internal Facebook administration tools – information that is not available to the general public.

Real names make everything OK. So, it's not even a loophole. It's just the way the ecosystem works. In Facebook's case, everything on the backend looked fine, as did the facade-building on the front end. When the facade was torn off by this investigation, Facebook's response isn't so much defensive as it is "this is how our platform works." That everything working correctly meant the construction and deployment of coordinated disinformation is indicative of the limitations of moderation, not necessarily Facebook's tacit endorsement of fully utilizing the tools it provides to businesses.

But that's how Facebook users end up viewing pages purporting to provide news about the war in Yemen that are run by UK lobbyists on behalf of their Saudi government patrons. And that's how persecuted conservative-adjacent entities continue to flourish, despite their protestations otherwise. The sad truth is at-scale moderation will never work well enough to banish one end of the political spectrum. It can't even limit the stuff it's supposed to be limiting at this point. And that's after several years and millions of dollars.

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Filed Under: boris johnson, censorship, free speech, moderation, social media, uk
Companies: facebook


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  1. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Aug 2019 @ 2:34pm

    Good to see Techdirt admit in its headline that Facebook is attempting to ban all conservatives.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Aug 2019 @ 2:42pm

    Re:

    Good to see Techdirt admit in its headline that Facebook is attempting to ban all conservatives.

    Good to see you have no idea how the english language works.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 5 Aug 2019 @ 3:08pm

    Trolls’ Long-Running Failure to Understand English Show Sites Will Never Be Able to Teach People English, Stop Trolls

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    JoeCool (profile), 5 Aug 2019 @ 5:36pm

    Can't ban all conservatives

    Too bad, that would probably be the easiest way to stop the fake news.
    ;)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Aug 2019 @ 5:40pm

    Re:

    Comma’s how do they work?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    Madd the Sane (profile), 5 Aug 2019 @ 6:19pm

    Re: Can't ban all of my enemies

    Eh, both sides engage in lying: It's not just a conservative or a liberal thing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    Toom1275 (profile), 5 Aug 2019 @ 8:24pm

    Re: Re: Can't ban all of my enemies

    "Borh sides" isn't really an honest descriptor for a 95/5* split.

    *being overly generous to the conservatives here.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    Toom1275 (profile), 5 Aug 2019 @ 8:25pm

    Re: Re: Re: Can't ban all of my enemies

    both*

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    icon
    Zof (profile), 5 Aug 2019 @ 9:29pm

    Ah, The Empire Loves Censorship

    Now send out the lapdogs to call it justice.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Aug 2019 @ 10:50pm

    Re: Ah, Here comes lyin zof right on schedule

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), 6 Aug 2019 @ 12:13am

    We have BELIEF!!

    For all the talk about social media platforms and their supposed anti-conservative bias, it seems like plenty of conservatives are doing just fine. 

    That's not the point. To control their base, conservatives must have scary enemy conspiracies. Birther, new world order, or biased media, it's all the same.

    Talking about evidence ("conservatives are doing just fine") -- or lack thereof -- is a waste of time. They don't care about evidence, because they have BELIEF, and BELIEF crushes evidence, every time.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    M.Saleem, 6 Aug 2019 @ 1:58am

    What is Prepositions?

    That really can be a result of sentence Pre-position Even Though it Isn't considered a severe grammar mistake, most refer to the as a “stranded preposition" and also the solution is
    the Following: "There are plenty of matters to keep yourself informed." What's a Preposition?
    Pre-position errors aren't too normal for native English speaking people since they get obvious when the Fundamental English grammar rules have been not broken up. For the bunny case above, it'd have been an uncommon mistake to observe something such as “The bunny put two clips involving".

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. icon
    PaulT (profile), 6 Aug 2019 @ 5:10am

    Re: Re: Re: Can't ban all of my enemies

    Yep. Is there some bad behaviour on the "left", including misleading or made up stories? Of course. Are they at anywhere near the high level as on the "right"? No.

    Fun fact: while there have been some inroads, many of the more notorious fake news peddlers outright state that they don't get bites on the left. For example:

    https://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2016/11/23/503146770/npr-finds-the-head-of-a -covert-fake-news-operation-in-the-suburbs

    "Coler says his writers have tried to write fake news for liberals — but they just never take the bait."

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. icon
    bransm19 (profile), 6 Aug 2019 @ 6:05am

    The only way to stop fake news is to ban everyone and close the platform.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. icon
    Toom1275 (profile), 6 Aug 2019 @ 8:16am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Can't ban all of my enemies

    Like the #walkaway campaign. While it appeared to convince Trumpalos just fine, when it got pasted in higher-inteligence forums, it got treated as the transparent trolling it was.
    That it always repeated a pack of blatant alt-Right lies about "leftists" was a dead giveaway that the preceding "I am/was a Leftist" claim was a pathetic pretense.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    John, 6 Aug 2019 @ 9:24am

    More TechDirt Leftist Bias

    Geez guys, just stick to IP issues. Every time you delve into anything remotely political you reveal your far left bias.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. icon
    Toom1275 (profile), 6 Aug 2019 @ 9:51am

    Re: More TechDirt Leftist Bias

    [Asserts facts not in evidence]

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Aug 2019 @ 11:34am

    Re: More TechDirt Leftist Bias

    What is far left bias?
    Does it include not believing the police should murder people at random?
    Or maybe it is all about how the left disrespects the right by pointing out violations of the law.
    Maybe some examples....

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 6 Aug 2019 @ 12:27pm

    See also: Apostrophes.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 6 Aug 2019 @ 12:31pm

    Please explain what you mean by “far left bias”.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Aug 2019 @ 12:50pm

    Re:

    ‘‘Twas on purpose this time. In general though, guilty as charge’d.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. icon
    Toom1275 (profile), 6 Aug 2019 @ 3:11pm

    Re:

    The extreme left to the center-right trust in facts, the extreme right trusts instead in FOX.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. icon
    PaulT (profile), 7 Aug 2019 @ 3:41am

    Re: Re:

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. icon
    PaulT (profile), 7 Aug 2019 @ 3:45am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Can't ban all of my enemies

    Yes. Gullible fools took the "I was a Leftist" stuff at face value. Anyone with an ounce of sense would not only recognise that nobody who identifies on the left would refer to themselves in such a way, but they'd also examine some of that person's claimed political stances, posting history and reasoning for making such a wild switch, and find them all unconvincing.

    That's not to say that the only gullible people were on the right or that every right-winger was taken in, of course, but it's clear where those who are easily fooled get their "news".

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25. icon
    Wendy Cockcroft (profile), 8 Aug 2019 @ 5:28am

    Re:

    Methinks it's "Statements I disagree with/hurt mah feelz."

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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