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