A tidal wave of imitation clickbait sites are flooding Facebook. Unfortunately, there seems to be no source, nor solution, to be found.
The Internet has changed our lives. In ways like never before, we can consume information from all around the world and at any time. But that ease in access has also fundamentally changed our relationship with fact and our ability to discern its more murky shades. Just as we can find the news with ease, so too can we fall for fake news.
You’ve heard it all before: the way fake news impacts the beliefs we hold, the political roots it sometimes stems from, the works. But perhaps most of all, you’ve probably heard about the way Facebook helps misinformation thrive. For good reason, too.
Through unknown methods, “junk sites” get their content posted on verified celebrity Facebook pages and then spread to millions of users who find themselves overrun with spam, fake news, ads, and tracking software. This all happens due to what The Atlantic describes as the “attention economy”: the notion that people’s attention spans are a commodity and the battle to grab that attention.
The Atlantic describes as the “attention economy”: the notion that people’s attention spans are a commodity and the battle to grab that attention.
New York’s marketed technology firm CrowdTap is part of this race, making use of “influencer marketing”: a largely unregulated area of digital advertising in which brands use celebrities or influential social media personalities to endorse products and non-too-subtly encourage fans to buy them.
Speaking to fact checking service Snopes, CrowdTap’s chief executive officer, Matt Britton, explained the shift from traditional advertising, to social media, “Basically, more eyeballs are now on mobile devices than on TVs and newspapers, and when those eyeballs are on phones, they’re often looking at social media and at content generated by both people and companies.”
“The Kardashians [for example] have amassed millions of people that not only follow what they do, but try and replicate what they do. So when they post a product of say, skin cream or make-up and say ‘this works,’ people buy it. Some brands have found that’s more effective than standard advertising.”
Currently – at least in the United States – the only regulation on these plugs is that influencers disclose that, by endorsing a product, they are essentially advertising it.
“If a person gets paid or gets a product for free and endorses it, they need to disclose that, otherwise they are misleading the consumer. A lot of people have gotten into hot water with the FTC [Federal Trade Commission] because they’ve been busted for not complying…an influencer has a responsibility to disclose to their audience if they get paid or not – it’s really the influencer’s responsibility.”
In cases that Snopes had been tracking, things were a little different. While ordinary endorsements involved a physical product, clickbait sites generate their revenue from advertising via click-throughs by users. Links shared under celebrities’ names and blue “verified” checks could be viewed as endorsements of the content.
Facebook users who “liked” the pages of celebrities with large followings are inundated with spam and fake news, such as a story about a dead mermaid washing ashore or clickbait smut about an “obese white woman twerking” – both long debunked.
Snopes spent weeks tracking 29 fake domains that are posted to verified celebrity pages, including rapper 50 Cent and comedians Martin Lawrence and Tommy Chong – neither of which I had to Google, not at all – and “music” group LMFAO.
Collectively, the pages have more than a staggering 85 million followers.
Many of the links shared on those pages, they found, are essentially “domain spoofing” Facebook: meaning, that when those links are clicked, they redirect users to Jellyshare.com, a spam website otherwise banned by the social media platform.
One link took users from Facebook to a landing page, containing only the story’s image, title, and a button allowing viewers to continue reading. Once a user engages with the landing page, a simple line of code initiates a redirect to Jellyshare.com, stuffed full of fake news, clickbait, dozens of advertisements, and ad tracking software.
This method appears to be an attempt to circumvent Facebook’s spam filter, which normally warns users posting JellyShare links that they are posting spam. Fake domains, however, don’t appear to set those same warnings off.
The day after Snopes contacted JellyShare, the site all but vanished from its celebrity pages, the identically designed Culturehook.com posting to LMFAO’s and Martin Lawrence’s timelines. These posts, just like the JellyShare ones, were what Sprout Social calls “dark posts,” showing in the news feed of the celebrities’ followers, but not on the celebrities’ profile pages. But, rather than “domain spoofing” the platform, the Culturehook posts made use of Facebook’s “Instant Articles” product to distribute and monetize their content.
Research director at the Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Jonathan Albright, told Snopes that the junk celebrity pages share with their millions of followers adds to the “chaos” in the digital information ecosystem, despite Facebook’s attempts at stamping out “fake news” following last year’s election.
Albright explains that this use of misdirection also causes confusion among readers about what to believe and runs the risk of lowering the social media platform’s credibility on the whole.
“We need to rethink how we deal with this, because this is not a small problem. It’s going to get worse, because the behavioral targeting is getting better and better, with the goal being to cause measurable changes in behavior. You can’t just wash your hands, close your campaign down, or cash your checks and do your accounting and walk away. Society still has these things echo through it. These things keep recirculating.”
CrowdTap’s Matt Britton believes the current rampant nature of misinformation has more to do with the lack of regulation in the relatively new space, more than any kind of endemic issue with social media.
Continuing, Albright says that the manner in which JellyShare tricks Facebook’s software with fake domains not only confuses readers, but, like all fake news, draws reader attention away from genuine news sources. As Snopes describes it: if attention spans are oxygen in an “attention economy,” then junk sites are suffocating legitimate journalism by drawing readers away from it.
“The amazing thing about the URL is that it allows you to look at the domains, and domains have credibility signals in them. With Facebook links, everything is embedded, and it removes all of those. When you post a story that looks like ABC.com, but it’s really ABC.com.co, older people or people that are busy, they don’t see the difference, so it’s super easy to hack those credibility signals when you paste links that Facebook nowadays automatically previews and converts. It removes all the credibility signals, and people can exploit that.”
We have always been told to make sure we’re only ever typing our details into the real deal websites, else our information will fall into the wrong hands – maybe it’s time we started doing the same when it comes to our news consumption, else the wrong information will fall into our own hands.
Yes, that does become a markedly more annoying task when you’re reading news from within Facebook, but just as it should never be too hard to ensure you’re typing your banking details into NetBank and not NettBank, it should never be so hard to ensure you’re getting accurate information.
Despite Snopes’s extensive searching, they were unable to find who it was that owns JellyShare or who would be benefiting from the revenue generated from its click-throughs. Emails were sent to three addresses listed on the website – two of them bouncing. The third, addressed to the webmaster, received no response. The same goes for a message sent to the site’s Facebook page.
Amanda Ruisi, publicist for 50 Cent, told Snopes that the rapper’s team had ended their contract with social media firm Wild Hair, who had been providing the rapper with Facebook content marketing services. She described any prior postings as having been “not approved,” and of all being since removed.
Despite this, Wild Hair seems none the wiser about just where these junk sites came from in the first place – as did similar services likes Cirqle and Crossford, who claim to have “exclusive” access to both Mr. Cent’s and other celeb Facebook pages. All of them spoke to their relationships with their talent, but gave no information on just where their content is coming from.
This isn’t to say that social media is going to be a victim of the curse of fake news forever, however.
CrowdTap’s Matt Britton believes the current rampant nature of misinformation has more to do with the lack of regulation in the relatively new space, more than any kind of endemic issue with social media. “I think it’s going to get snuffed out [by Facebook], and there’s going to be a flight to quality for brands. There’s a lot going on right now in that space – it’s not regulated, there’s no association tracking or validating it – and it’s ripe for fraud.”
Meaning, that as platforms and regulators begin adjusting to the new media landscape, these (not so small) hiccups should be largely legislated out of existence.
In the meantime, however, surf safe.
Always check any dubious claims you see and always make sure there’s at least one verifiable outlet parroting the story you see before you. If it’s not on Google, it’s not real.