The news for Facebook in the week leading up to the European Union Parliamentary elections reinforced the image of a company unable to control a platform that has been hijacked by right-wing extremists.
While the video gained millions of views, a Facebook spokesperson offered a non-explanation for the decision, saying: “We think it’s important for people to make their own informed choice for what to believe.”
But in Europe, the picture was even more grim.
A study dubbed “Fakewatch” released by global citizens’ movement Avaaz, which monitors election freedom and disinformation, found what the group identified as 500 suspect pages and groups linked to right-wing and anti-EU organizations that were spreading massive disinformation.
“Far-right and anti-EU groups are weaponizing social media at scale to spread false and hateful content,” the study says. “Our findings were shared with Facebook, and resulted in an unprecedented shut down of Facebook pages just before voters head to the polls.”
Indeed, Facebook subsequently took down 77 of the pages and groups reported by Avaaz. Overall, those 500 suspect pages and groups were followed by 32 million people and had more than 67 million “interactions” (comments, likes, shares) over the past three months.
This has become a standard cycle in Europe. Facebook says it is cracking down. But often it is Avaaz that is reporting the malfeasance and abuse, prompting action by Facebook. Last month, the group reported widespread abuses of Facebook and WhatsApp in advance of Spanish elections, prompting Facebook to belatedly remove some pages and groups.
In France, Avaaz found in another report that Facebook had generated more than 105 million views of fake news about the country’s Yellow Vest movement.
Christoph Schott, Campaign Director at Avaaz, said that tactics have evolved among bad actors, who are playing a long games in terms of manipulating Facebook’s platform. For instance, he said many of these groups started several years ago, under different names that were largely innocent around mundane subjects. At some point, the groups’ names would change, and they started becoming funnels for right-wing content that targeted people who didn’t necessarily sign up for such topics.
In other cases, such groups lie dormant for years, and then are suddenly re-activated to help such content ricochet around Facebook’s platform, he said. As a result, it’s hard to know if Facebook is just fighting a losing battle, or just not fighting.
“We are 30 people working on this stuff for 3 months,” he said. “It’s all stuff Facebook could have detected, like page name changes. This should not be allowed to happen. Right now, it seems that Facebook is ignoring its own rules.”
Rather being forced to take down fake content, Avaaz is advocating that Facebook be required to show corrected or verified information to everyone who saw the original malicious content.
Alas, Avaaz wasn’t the only research group publishing alarming findings. The Oxford University-based Computational Propaganda Project came out with a study looking at the spread of junk news during the EU election season. It noted that: “On Facebook, while many more users interact with mainstream content overall, individual junk news stories can still hugely outperform even the best, most important professionally produced stories, drawing as much as four times the volume of shares, likes, and comments.”
But ironically (or perhaps not), the most damning statistic last week came from Facebook itself. In its latest Community Standards Enforcement Report, the company revealed that it had taken down 2.19 billion fake accounts during the first three months of 2019. That’s up from 1.2 billion accounts disabled during the last three months of 2018.
“The amount of accounts we took action on increased due to automated attacks by bad actors who attempt to create large volumes of accounts at one time,” the company said in a blog post.
Those almost 3.4 billion accounts over six months compares to the 2.37 billion active monthly users the company says it has. The company says it is confident that the majority were zapped almost as soon as they were created and had little impact.
But Schott of Avaaz said he found the trend disturbing, another sign that right-wing groups are investing even more time and resources into harnessing Facebook’s platform to spread their messages.
“It shows the number of actors trying to do damage,” Schott said. “And that’s frightening.”