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Disinfo Snapshot

Avaaz Report

Anti-Racism Protests: Divisive disinformation narratives go viral on Facebook, racking up over 26 million estimated views

With five months left until US Presidential elections, findings indicate Facebook’s current efforts remain far from what’s needed to protect American voters

June 12, 2020

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As millions of people throughout the world hit the streets to protest police brutality and racism, disinformation seeking to polarize the debate, or to demonise and undermine the protests, continues to spread on social media platforms. A new analysis from Avaaz’s investigative team estimates that a small sample of posts connected to a dozen viral disinformation narratives about the anti-racism protests have been viewed millions of times on Facebook during the last two weeks. 

Furthermore, the team was able to identify a network of nine Facebook pages amplifying some of these narratives in a coordinated manner to potentially monetise the virality of outrage.  

To understand the scale of disinformation targeting protesters on the platform, Avaaz analysed a dozen of the most egregious, false and misleading narratives about the protests and associated posts between May 27, 2020 - the start of the U.S. demonstrations - and June 9, 2020. We found that:

  • These 12 narratives attained at least 26 million estimated views combined;

  • The disinformation promoted by these narratives includes:

    • Black Lives Matter activists are threatening to assassinate white families;

    • The anti-racism protests are using paid protesters who have been hired through the website ProtestJobs.com1;

    • “Antifa” groups or government officials placed pallets of bricks at protest sites in US cities to stoke violence;

    • George Floyd is alive.

  • A coordinated network of 9 Facebook pages with an audience of over 1.5 million followers promoted three of the disinformation narratives we analysed: that Soros orchestrated the protests; that “Antifa” placed pallets of bricks at protest sites to stoke violence; and that “Black Lives Matter” had announced its intention to “assassinate white families.” This network consistently included links marketing a dietary supplement in its posts, in a possible attempt to monetise the spread of anti-protest and other disinformation narratives.

  • At the time of our investigation, many of the posts we reviewed did not carry a fact-checking label, even though the false or misleading narratives the posts were based on had previously been debunked by independent fact-checkers. Examples are this post2 about bricks placed in Dallas for rioters to throw, this post3 about Black Lives Matter activists attacking white families, and this post4 about Soros financing the anti-racism protests.

Below are screenshots of the most egregious narratives examined in this study:

False Claim

A coordinated effort exists to place piles of bricks at protest sites to stoke violence [sample post archive here - Fact checked by: Buzzfeed, BBC, Snopes, PolitiFact]

7,584,905 estimated views

 

False Claim

“Antifa” shared a tweet espousing plans to bring violence to white residential areas [sample post archive here - fact-checked by: FactCheck.org, Snopes]

539,661 estimated views

 

False Claim

Black Lives Matter activists are threatening to assassinate white families [sample post archive here - fact-checked by: Buzzfeed, Snopes]

78,131 estimated views

 

A full list of the twelve disinformation narratives we detected and analysed, and their estimated views, can be found in the table below. 

These disinformation narratives are spread through a mixture of memes, videos, doctored images, fake-news website links, and text posts, a mish-mash of tactics that, in some cases, appears to be designed to go around Facebook’s counter-disinformation tools. 

A warning ahead of US Presidential Elections: Facebook is unprepared

Avaaz conducted this snapshot analysis as a case study on Facebook’s preparedness to stem the spread of false and misleading content ahead of the US 2020 elections. Facebook’s failure to keep the disinformation narratives above from going viral and being viewed millions of times, as well as the company’s failure to provide retroactive fact-checks to users who have engaged with false or misleading information, offers a strong warning about how disinformation narratives, amplified on the platform, may be used to influence divisions and voters’ perceptions ahead of the elections. 

Although Facebook adopted more robust policies after Russian and other election interference efforts during the 2016 vote, the platform’s policies are not keeping up with the scale and sophistication of this problem. For example, Facebook still does not alert the users who it detects have engaged with disinformation that the content they interacted with has been flagged and/or removed from the platform, nor does it act to ensure they see fact-checks, despite ample scientific evidence showing that doing so is effective in fighting belief in disinformation. 

Centrally, it is important to note that the narratives identified do not cover the more broad range of disinformation narratives that have not yet been fact-checked by independent fact-checkers, such as extremely local disinformation content focused on certain small communities or protests. Our findings are only the tip of the iceberg. 

Last Friday, Mark Zuckerberg stated that: “I believe our platforms can play a positive role in helping to heal the divisions in our society, and I'm committed to making sure our work pulls in this direction.” With increasing demands from Facebook’s employees for better policy solutions to these difficult questions, and with divisions becoming more severe in some cases specifically due to the information ecosystem on Facebook, we urge Mr. Zuckerberg to act fast to ensure that the company’s anti-disinformation efforts are quickly scaled to deal with this problem. 

Avaaz has shared these findings with Facebook and recommended that the company share specific data on the full reach and views of the flagged false or misleading content, and whether the platform’s fact-checks have been effective in reaching the users who engaged with this troubling activity.

The 12 protest-related disinformation narratives Avaaz analysed

To see all table data, please, scroll to the right

Narratives Fact Check(s) Estimated Views5
Anti-racism protests are relying on paid protesters from website ProtestJobs.com
[sample post]
Snopes
Reuters
7,613,063
“Antifa” groups or government officials placed pallets of bricks at protest sites to stoke violence
[sample post]
Buzzfeed
BBC
Snopes
PolitiFact
7,584,905
Derek Chauvin committed suicide in his prison cell
[sample post]
FactCheck.org 2,971,647
George Floyd is still alive
[sample post]
Lead Stories 2,631,000
A man threw a gas bomb into a horse trailer during a black lives matter protest
[sample post]
Buzzfeed
Truth or Fiction
PolitiFact
2,564,619
George Soros is paying people to protest/ orchestrating protests
[sample post]
PolitiFact
BBC
2,143,073
“Antifa” threatened to “take what’s ours” from white residential areas
[sample post]
FactCheck.org
Snopes
539,661
George Floyd’s death was staged
[sample post]
FactCheck.org 137,560
Protestors broke into the White House
[sample post]
PolitiFact
Reuters
124,123
Picture shows Derek Chauvin wearing a “Make Whites Great Again” hat
[sample post]
FactCheck.org 100,626
Black Lives Matter activists threatened in social media posts to assassinate white families
[sample post]
Buzzfeed
Snopes
78,131
Protesters defaced the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.
[sample post]
LeadStories
PolitiFact
55,392

The “I Am A Texan” Network: Coordinated monetisation of anti-protest disinformation

As we analysed the viewership of the 12 protest-related disinformation narratives, we identified a coordinated network of 9 Facebook pages with an audience of over 1.5 million followers. We are calling this the “I Am A Texan” Network, because the ‘I Am A Texan’ page is the oldest page with the most page likes in the network. In addition to possibly sharing administrators and coordination on content posting, this network also appears to have tried to monetise its referral traffic by driving viewers to Resurge.com, which is a website promoting a dietary supplement. 

Between May 26, 2020 and June 8, 2020, this network promoted three of the disinformation narratives we analysed: that George Soros orchestrated the protests; that “Antifa” placed pallets of bricks at protest sites to stoke violence; and that “Black Lives Matter” had announced its intention to “assassinate white families.” The network regularly posts identical content to its pages within seconds of each other.

The 9 pages in the “I Am A Texan” Network that we identified are shown below. 

Page URL Created Admins Likes Archives
Don't Tread on Me https://www.facebook.com/letfreedomringyall/ September 30, 2012 United States (2), Germany (1) 518,654 http://archive.ph/ClPwy
I Am A Texan https://www.facebook.com/BeautifulTexas/ June 6, 2012 United States (3), Germany (1) 520,929 http://archive.ph/4bchP
Cool Conservative https://www.facebook.com/coolconservatives December 6, 2018 United States (3), Germany (1) 17,788 http://archive.ph/G8Exz
The Second Amendment https://www.facebook.com/The-2nd-Amendment-452832981470891/ May 3, 2013 United States (3), Germany (1) 156,066 http://archive.ph/mRN41
Start Draining America https://www.facebook.com/startdrainingnow/ May 26, 2013 United States (3), Germany (1) 170,528 http://archive.ph/CltYH
Washington News https://www.facebook.com/Washington-News-1583110238580443/ April 4, 2015 United States (2), Germany (1) 31,161 http://archive.ph/OPEDV
I Am Texan https://www.facebook.com/iamtexan1/ July 16, 2015 United States (2), Germany (1) 69,332 http://archive.ph/Jr6jJ
I Love America https://www.facebook.com/reclaimamericaforliberty September 19, 2013 United States (7), Germany 1 44,941 http://archive.ph/8Csn0
Texas is Amazing https://www.facebook.com/amazingtx/ November 16, 2014 United States (3), Germany (1) 23,806 http://archive.ph/DiQz6
      Total Likes 1,553,205  

A number of factors indicate that these pages are maintained by the same administrators. As you can see in the table above, the pages appear to share a set of administrators based in the US and Germany. Note that all of the pages have 1 admin in Germany, plus 2 to 3 in the US. The one exception is the page, “I Love America,” which has 7 US-based admins and 1 in Germany. 

Further, the same items are frequently posted to several of the network’s pages within very tight time bounds, with identical post text and an identical Buff.ly shortlink. 

For example, on 8 of the pages in the “I Am Texan” Network, Avaaz observed that the story of Black Lives Matter announcing its intention to “assassinate white families” was posted on each page within 11 seconds of each other, and they all included identical text and links. It appears that, in the last 24 hours, all but one of these posts have now been taken down. The rest of the network appears to still be live. 

This table shows the 8 posts on the Network that have the false content claiming “Black Lives Matter activists intend to assassinate white families”

Page Name Created Original URL (Some posts have now been removed by Facebook) Message
I Love America 2020-05-31 21:18:32 EDT https://www.facebook.com/reclaimamericaforliberty/posts/2939627482782088 This was just posted in a Houston area Facebook Group. Watch this video right away or you'll hate yourself later https://buff.ly/2AoLTjO:=:https://resurge.com/welcome/?hop=iamatexan&s=dQxEaf40yI9SijRm6VAY%26&atid=
I Am Texan 2020-05-31 21:18:31 EDT https://www.facebook.com/iamtexan1/posts/2753113428250296 This was just posted in a Houston area Facebook Group. Watch this video right away or you'll hate yourself later https://buff.ly/2AoLTjO:=:https://resurge.com/welcome/?hop=iamatexan&s=dQxEaf40yI9SijRm6VAY%26&atid=
Texas Is Amazing 2020-05-31 21:18:31 EDT https://www.facebook.com/amazingtx/posts/2746325695599335 This was just posted in a Houston area Facebook Group. Watch this video right away or you'll hate yourself later https://buff.ly/2AoLTjO:=:https://resurge.com/welcome/?hop=iamatexan&s=dQxEaf40yI9SijRm6VAY%26&atid=
The 2nd Amendment 2020-05-31 21:18:29 EDT https://www.facebook.com/452832981470891/posts/3097927866961376 This was just posted in a Houston area Facebook Group. Watch this video right away or you'll hate yourself later https://buff.ly/2AoLTjO:=:https://resurge.com/welcome/?hop=iamatexan&s=dQxEaf40yI9SijRm6VAY%26&atid=
Don't Tread On Me 2020-05-31 21:18:27 EDT https://www.facebook.com/letfreedomringyall/posts/2780724178717656 This was just posted in a Houston area Facebook Group. Watch this video right away or you'll hate yourself later https://buff.ly/2AoLTjO:=:https://resurge.com/welcome/?hop=iamatexan&s=dQxEaf40yI9SijRm6VAY%26&atid=
Washington News 2020-05-31 21:18:27 EDT https://www.facebook.com/1583110238580443/posts/2721936764697779 This was just posted in a Houston area Facebook Group. Watch this video right away or you'll hate yourself later https://buff.ly/2AoLTjO:=:https://resurge.com/welcome/?hop=iamatexan&s=dQxEaf40yI9SijRm6VAY%26&atid=
Start Draining America 2020-05-31 21:18:25 EDT https://www.facebook.com/startdrainingnow/posts/3050045618382036 This was just posted in a Houston area Facebook Group. Watch this video right away or you'll hate yourself later https://buff.ly/2AoLTjO:=:https://resurge.com/welcome/?hop=iamatexan&s=dQxEaf40yI9SijRm6VAY%26&atid=
Cool Conservatives 2020-05-31 21:18:21 EDT https://www.facebook.com/coolconservatives/posts/570320157250365 This was just posted in a Houston area Facebook Group. Watch this video right away or you'll hate yourself later https://buff.ly/2AoLTjO:=:https://resurge.com/welcome/?hop=iamatexan&s=dQxEaf40yI9SijRm6VAY%26&atid=

We also discovered interesting monetisation behaviour by this network which we observed in all the posts we reviewed, including the Black Lives Matter examples set out above. The network’s posts consistently include shortlinks that direct to Resurge.com, a site that sells a dietary supplement via an affiliate marketing service provided to sellers by a company called ClickBank. 

Each of the posts we examined includes the text, “Watch this video right away or you'll hate yourself later,” followed by a short link that contains an identical tracking code - “hop=iamatexan”. This tracking code tells ClickBank who should be credited the commission if a sale of a Resurge product is made through the referral link. So-called “affiliate” marketers of Resurge’s products earn a commission for every product sold. In every post we reviewed that's the, "I Am A Texan," page, the network's oldest and most popular page. It appears that someone(s) in the “I Am a Texan” network has become a registered “affiliate” of ClickBank for the purpose of marketing  Resurge.com products. According to the Resurge.com website; “CLICKBANK® is a registered trademark of Click Sales Inc.” The fact that each node of the network markets Resurge using an identical Clickbank shortlink points strongly to the nodes’  connection to each other. 

Avaaz found no evidence to suggest that Resurge or Click Sales Inc. are aware that Resurge’s  products are being marketed in connection with the spread of disinformation.

What Facebook Should Do

Correct the Record

Facebook must notify and issue fact-checked corrections to every person who saw content that independent fact-checkers have determined to be false or misleading information. Particularly at this tense moment, 5 months ahead of the elections, it is central that American users are notified when they have viewed false and misleading content, and must be provided with corrections when they are available. Research commissioned by Avaaz and conducted by leading experts proves that providing corrections to social media users who have seen false or misleading information can decrease belief in disinformation by almost 50%. Multiple other peer-reviewed studies have demonstrated that effective corrections can reduce and even eliminate the effects of disinformation.

 

 

Detox the Algorithm

Facebook must detox its algorithms that decide what people see. This means known disinformation is downgraded in user feeds, instead of being amplified. Disinformation, and pages and channels that belong to repeat offenders who spread it, should also be taken out of the algorithms that recommend content. Social media algorithms can often prioritise keeping users on their platform over keeping them safe and well-informed.

For further information on Correct the Record and Detox the Algorithm, please see our legislative principles for tackling disinformation.

Dataset and Methodology6

Avaaz’s team of researchers used a combination of Facebook’s public data, analytics tools like CrowdTangle7, independent US fact-checking organizations, and statistical modelling to arrive at what we believe provides a credible, though conservative, picture of the total estimated views and impact of some of the most shared and fact-checked disinformation narratives in the US as pertains to the anti-racism protests.

Avaaz defines disinformation as “verifiably false or misleading information, as assessed by reputable independent fact-checking organisations, with the potential to cause public harm for example by undermining democracy or public health, or encouraging discrimination or hate speech".

To better understand the scale of protest-related disinformation on Facebook, Avaaz began collecting and analysing posts about the protests from May 26, 2020 to June 9, 2020.

For the purpose of this analysis, our investigative team then specifically reviewed a broad list of independently fact-checked disinformation content, targeting users spanning the political and ideological spectrum. The team sorted posts that shared the same theme into a specific narrative “box”. Our team then chose the set of 12 disinformation narratives to focus on for this quick snapshot based on the following criteria:

  • Were the relevant narratives fact-checked by reputable, independent U.S. fact-checking organisations?8

  • Did the posts promote verifiably false or misleading content related to the protests that could cause public harm?

  • Had the posts detected, which pertain to a certain narrative, attain an aggregate of at least 50,000 estimated views9?

For each of these narratives, our team then used CrowdTangle software and direct observation to:

  • Find text, images, videos, or links to external web pages promoting these narratives that were shared by pages, groups, and profiles on Facebook;

  • Assess the engagement with each item and record the total number of interactions (likes, shares, comments) each received;

  • Arrive at the final estimate of the number of times each item was likely viewed on the platform.


How Avaaz measures Estimated Views:

Facebook discloses the number of views for videos, but for posts containing only text and image content the platform displays only the number of shares, likes and comments. Therefore, in order to estimate viewership for text and image content, Avaaz designed a metric based on the publicly available statistics of the Facebook pages creating or sharing the false or misleading pieces in our report. For each page, we took into account the total number of owned and shared video views between May 26, 2020 to June 9, 2020, and then divided it by the total number of owned and shared video interactions.

Facebook reports a “video view” after only three seconds, while an image or text can be considered as “viewed” and having an actual impact in under three seconds. This approach relies on the assumption of uniform distribution of viewership. Therefore, the estimation of total views in this study is probably lower than the content’s actual total viewership,  but more data from Facebook would be useful to ensure the accuracy of this estimation.

Step 1: Views/interaction ratio calculation: We computed a global view/interaction ratio of 20.19 for all the pages that shared the selected disinformation narratives. The ratio was computed by dividing the total video views collected by these pages in one year by total video interactions in the same timeframe.

Step 2: Total views calculation: For each piece of disinformation, we multiplied our views/interaction ratio of 20.19 per the number of interactions for that posts or web links provided by CrowdTangle. The only exception was for videos, where  we used the actual views provided by Facebook. Adding all those real and estimated views together we obtain the final estimate of 26,543,800 views.

Note to journalists - Understanding different terms when discussing the viewership of disinformation content with Facebook:

Social media platforms have different means of measuring user engagement:

  1. Views/impressions: Impressions are the amount of times a particular piece of content was served to a user whereas views is the amount of times a user sees actually a specific piece of content. An individual who even scrolls through a picture in their Facebook newsfeed regardless of whether they actually saw the content would be counted as a view on Facebook. Impressions and Views on organic content are not known publicly.

  2. Video views: The only measure that Facebook shares is a number of “video views” where a video view is when a user has watched three seconds of a video. As described in our methodology above, we’ve used that higher-bar definition of a “video views” as the baseline for our estimation of total views of all of the content, even though content can already have an actual impact in less than three seconds.

  3. Reach: The amount of specific individual users who have engaged with specific content.

  4. Interactions: The amount of likes, shares, comments...etc. on a specific post.

  5. Clicks: The number of users who actually clicked on the content - for example to visit a website it links to, or to expand a picture.

Facebook does not make the metrics on how many individuals have viewed certain disinformation content fully available to researchers outside specific research programs at the company, apart from for videos, and in some cases, for advertising content that a user has purchased. Therefore, Facebook alone has a full picture of the views, reach, interactions, and clicks for the 12 disinformation narratives we explored in this investigation.

As discussed above, in this report Avaaz seeks to approximate a “view” based on only the publicly available metrics. For each page, we took into account the total number of owned and shared video views between May 26, 2020 to June 9, 2020, and then divided it by the total number of owned and shared video interactions. Facebook reports a “video view” after only three seconds, while an image or text can be considered as “viewed” and having an impression and actual impact on the user in under three seconds. Therefore, the estimation of total views in this study is probably lower than the content’s actual total viewership.

We urge Facebook to transparently share the number of views and reach of disinformation content on its platform, as well as the reach of relevant fact-checked content, and to work to ensure that the prevalence of fact-checked content supersedes that of disinformation content.

Endnotes

  1. The ProtestJobs.com narrative, as debunked by Snopes and Reuters, has its roots in a series of satirical websites that emerged in 2017 that posed as protester hiring companies. Despite the sites’ satirical intent (including ProtestJobs.com), they have been promoted by hyperpartisan actors on social media since 2017 as legitimate companies aiding mass protests throughout the country. The fact that this narrative went viral, that those commenting on the posts largely believed the story was true, and that major fact-checkers were compelled to debunk them as “false” clearly indicates that once viral on social media, so-called “satire”, without labels, can easily be interpreted as real news. In previous research conducted by Avaaz, we have highlighted how websites can abuse the satire label to avoid fact-checking.
  2. Archived post available here.
  3. Archived post available here.
  4. Archived post available here.
  5. See Dataset and Methodology section.
  6. The methodology description below has been updated with more details on June,12, 2020, including a correction that Facebook does share relevant research data with a number of independent researchers working with the company’s research programs.
  7. Data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned tool that tracks interactions on public content from Facebook pages and groups, verified profiles, Instagram accounts, and subreddits. It does not include paid ads unless those ads began as organic, non-paid posts that were subsequently “boosted” using Facebook’s advertising tools. It also does not include activity on private accounts, or posts made visible only to specific groups of followers.
  8. Independent fact checks were available for each narrative analysed from Buzzfeed, Politifact, Snopes, Reuters, FactCheck.org, Lead Stories, and the BBC.
  9. See estimated views calculation methodology below.