Misinformation Monitor: July 2020
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By Gabby Deutch
The big story … Companies that boycott Facebook to protest hate speech are still advertising on misinformation sites
But First the Quiz:
1. Which American news website is secretly run by a Republican political consultant and is amplified to an audience of 8.5 million people on Facebook?
2. Which prominent brand that has joined the boycott of Facebook — protesting Facebook’s policies that allow irresponsible content to spread on the platform — also finances irresponsible misinformation websites by advertising on them?
d. All of them and many more
3. Which European leader has been frequently referred to as a “deep state puppet” by followers of Qanon, a conspiracy theory that until now has been largely confined to the United States?
a. Emmanuel Macron
b. Boris Johnson
c. Angela Merkel
d. Vladimir Putin
Read to the end of the next section for the answers.
Fortune 500 companies pulled ads from Facebook to protest the social media site’s policies on hate speech. But elsewhere on the Internet, they’re subsidizing the same or worse content.
More than one thousand companies of all sizes — ranging from Verizon to outdoors retailer REI to hundreds of small business and nonprofits — have signed on to the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, a movement led by the ADL and NAACP asking companies to pause Facebook advertising to protest what the civil rights organizations see as Facebook’s failure to fight hate speech. “Your profits will never be worth promoting hate, bigotry, racism, antisemitism and violence,” the campaign argues. Yet many of the biggest brands participating in the boycott fund websites that promote as much or often more of the content that these advertisers don’t want to fund on Facebook.
Over the past four months, companies including Pfizer, Microsoft, Starbucks, and Target placed advertisements — probably inadvertently, through algorithms that determine where programmatic ads appear — on sites that NewsGuard has rated Red, meaning generally unreliable.
Using data from Moat, an advertising technology service, NewsGuard examined the advertising practices of 15 companies participating in the boycott. Some — including Patagonia, Coca-Cola, and Ben and Jerry’s — did not have any ads appear on NewsGuard Red-rated sites in recent months.
Others advertised on infamous misinformation websites that have promoted debunked conspiracy theories about President Obama’s birthplace, anti-vaxx propaganda, and Islamophobic falsehoods.
Take technology giant HP as an example. “We expect all platforms on which we advertise to uphold responsible policies that prevent our ads from appearing alongside objectionable content, regardless of the source,” the company said in a statement announcing its participation in the boycott.
- The company’s ads recently appeared on 28 NewsGuard Red-rated sites, including GellerReport.com, an unreliable website that described Islam as an “assault to our way of life” in a 2018 article that argued that “Until the Western world understands the threat of Islamic ideology to their society and culture, people will continue to die.”
- HP also advertised on TheConservativeTreehouse.com, a misinformation site that gained attention last month for promoting the false claim (which later appeared in President Trump’s Twitter feed) that an elderly peaceful protester attacked by police in Buffalo, New York, had been a member of antifa. (An HP spokesperson did not respond to an email from NewsGuard.)
The list goes on:
- Starbucks, HP, Ford, Target, and Unilever ads fund ZeroHedge, a finance-blog-turned-conspiracy-hub that pushed falsehoods about former Vice President Joe Biden during the congressional impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump last fall and has falsely claimed the coronavirus was stolen by Chinese spies from a Canadian lab.
- Ads for some companies appear on Russian disinformation websites, too: Microsoft and HP advertised on Sputnik, and Adidas advertised on RT, both of which are mouthpieces for Vladimir Putin that seek to sow division in the U.S. and in Europe.
Why it matters: The Facebook ad boycott has amassed an unprecedented amount of corporate starpower, with businesses asserting that inclusive values are as important as profits. Yet their ads continue to subsidize unreliable sites across the Internet, appearing alongside racist and conspiratorial articles. This doesn’t mean the companies support those websites. But it’s what happens when companies place ads using algorithms, without considering a website’s content or journalistic standards.
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- (c) PatriotJournal.org is a conservative news site run by a Texas political consultant who also operates popular interconnected Facebook pages with names like Liberty Upheld and United American Patriots that have millions of followers. (See below for more details.)
- (d) All of these companies — and, as explained above, numerous others — have financed NewsGuard Red-rated misinformation sites by advertising on them.
- (c) German Chancellor Angela Merkel is routinely targeted by Qanon as a “deep state puppet.”
A Texas GOP consultant is secretly using a network of Facebook pages with millions of followers to boost his three partisan websites.
Ryan Mauldin, co-founder of Republican digital media firm Vici Media Group, is using a network of nine Facebook pages and three groups — none of which disclose any connection to each other or to Mauldin — to boost page views on his three right-wing websites. Through pages with names like Defense of Freedom, Make America Great, and Patriots United, the hyperpartisan articles can reach a combined audience of 8.6 million Facebook users. The network appears to violate Facebook’s ban on inauthentic behavior, which was created to bring transparency to the platform so that users know who created the content they encounter on the platform.
Mauldin is the force behind three websites, PatriotJournal.org, GOPDailyBrief.com, and AmericanJournalDaily.com, which publish nearly identical content. The sites are highly partisan, and NewsGuard rated them unreliable for failing to disclose their agenda or their ties to the well-connected Republican consultant. Stories have at times positively covered Vici’s clients, most notably Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. (Mauldin did not respond to three emails from NewsGuard.)
Mauldin runs Vici with his brother Patrick, who has a history of creating deceptive websites. Last year the New York Times reported that he ran a mysterious satire site called JoeBiden.info, which resembled a campaign website for the former vice president but actually skewered his policies and campaign tactics.
- In fact, Patrick Mauldin has worked for Biden’s opponent — a glowing testimonial on Vici’s website from Brad Parscale, President Trump’s senior advisor and former campaign manager, says that in 2016 Patrick “played an important role in our social media strategy which ultimately played a big part in helping Donald Trump win the election.”
The Facebook pages promoting the sites’ articles don’t disclose their connection to the Mauldin brothers, instead giving off the appearance that they are organic communities of conservative-minded Facebook users. However, several of them are affiliated with a company called Viral Media Partners LLC, which is registered in Ryan Mauldin’s name.
- The Patriot Journal Facebook page has spent over $17,000 on Facebook ads since May 2018, urging readers to sign petitions supporting the president and opposing Democrats.
What the pages tell Facebook users: All have About sections attacking mainstream media and promoting conservatism. They range from “Like this page if you are a TRUE American Conservative! Get the news you NEED to know” (American Conservative) to “We stand with real patriots by pushing back against the liberal media bias” (Liberty Upheld).
What the pages post: Many articles are posted on almost all of the Facebook pages within a 24-hour time frame, underneath the same descriptions — further evidence of coordination between the pages. Stories contain hostile broadsides against Democrats and groups like Black Lives Matter, and admiration for President Trump and Republicans.
Why we should care: Following the proliferation of online disinformation during the 2016 election, Facebook wrote new rules to protect “authenticity” on the platform. “We don’t allow people to misrepresent themselves on Facebook, use fake accounts, [or] artificially boost the popularity of content,” reads Facebook’s official policy on inauthentic behavior. The goal, Facebook writes, is “to create a space where people can trust the people and communities they interact with.” (NewsGuard did not receive a response to two emails sent to Facebook’s press team.)
- Mauldin’s collection of pages (and affiliated three groups) has amassed a combined 8,659,159 followers without disclosing, to a single one of them, that the network is run by a political consultant. Vici Media Group is not a particularly well known firm, but the small Texas-based company has earned over $430,000 in the past year from its work with four congressional candidates — in addition to the group’s work for state-level candidates in Texas, political organizations like the pro-life Ohio Right to Life, and Patrick Mauldin’s consulting for President Trump’s reelection.
- By failing to disclose this pertinent information to readers of the three sites run by Ryan Mauldin, or to the millions of people who see the articles on Facebook, Mauldin is not giving readers the full story.
Rita Zolotova, a Facebook spokesperson, declined to offer any specifics about the Patriot Journal network of pages. Zolotova noted that she had not yet looked at the pages, but said they probably don’t reach the level of “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” which involves fake accounts and often refers to foreign influence operations. But she said there are other ways pages might violate Facebook’s transparency rules, such as by failing to disclose that a network of pages is run by the same organization.
“It’s very likely if they are in fact run by the same person, that they would be in the pipeline and on the radar of our teams,” Zolotova said. Facebook routinely reaches out to networks that are tied to a single organization to “ask them to disclose that, and if they don’t, we will remove them,” Zolotova said.
Qanon, a conspiracy movement about the U.S. “deep state,” takes root in Europe
Coronavirus spawned an “infodemic,” with conspiracy theories about the virus’s origin, symptoms, and cures spreading quickly online. As conspiracies have grown more popular, they’re taking a new shape in Europe: Internet personalities, musicians, and politicians are now placing conspiracies about the coronavirus, politics, pedophilia, and more into the Qanon framework.
What is it? According to NBC News, “Qanon is a convoluted conspiracy theory with no apparent foundation in reality.” An anonymous Internet user named Q “has taken to the fringe internet message boards of 4chan and 8chan to leak intelligence about Trump’s top-secret war with a cabal of criminals run by politicians like Hillary Clinton and the Hollywood elite,” NBC reported.
- It’s a distinctly American ideology — skepticism toward the elites, with adherents adopting an almost religious reverence toward the belief system. But while the figures at the heart of Qanon are American (President Trump is seen as something of a savior, with Hillary Clinton and others in the U.S. “deep state” apparently seeking to stymie him), its general premise of distrust and conspiratorial thinking can be easily transferred to any country where disgruntled citizens don’t trust the people in charge.
In Italy, Germany, and France, Qanon social media accounts have grown by thousands of followers in recent months. They seek to spread the Qanon gospel to Europeans in their native languages.
The French Twitter account @QAnonFrance has amassed 8,200 followers since November in its bid to “allow non-English speaking patriots to follow Q.” The account shares mostly U.S.-centric conspiracy theories on topics including Clinton and the “deep state,” but it also criticizes the Macron government. It features French far-right content, including articles by essayist Alain Soral, who founded the NewsGuard Red-rated website EgaliteEtReconciliation.fr and whose YouTube channel was removed this month for “severe or repeated violations of YouTube’s rules forbidding the use of content inciting hatred.”
- LumiereSurGaia.com, a NewsGuard Red-rated site that ranks among the top 400 sites in France, has published Qanon conspiracies since 2018, and it recently shared a video from a French Qanon YouTube channel calling the COVID-19 pandemic part of the “Deep State’s plan…to destroy the economy to create chaos and create a demand for a world government headed by Soros, Rothschild and the Saudi family,” while taking down Trump.
In Germany, a Facebook group called Qanon deutsch blumenberger has published coronavirus conspiracies and Qanon theories — specifically focusing on the alleged existence of so-called deep state pedophile networks in Germany — to 29,875 members.
- A prominent German booster of Qanon has been Xavier Naidoo, a popular soul/R&B singer. He posted videos from Qlobal-Change, the biggest German-language Q account (with 96,000 YouTube subscribers), on Telegram. Naidoo recently claimed the coronavirus pandemic is really a cover for an effort to fight back against “elites” and set children free from pedophile networks run by those “elites.” The musician’s Qanon posts came not long after he made a number of controversial anti-immigrant comments — putting him directly in the spotlight, leading him to receive more attention than ever from German tabloids.
- Compact-online.de, a NewsGuard Red-rated site that publishes false stories to support the far-right AfD party, has brought the “deep state” framework to Germany. “The AfD and other patriotic forces are being hunted,” said a special COMPACT print issue on the deep state. “Anyone who says a clever word is targeted by the Deep State.” The site has also tried to tie Jeffrey Epstein and U.S. politicians to sexual abuse in Germany. “All just isolated cases? No, there’s a perverted system behind it too!”
A growing network of Qanon accounts in Italy share posts from Qlobal-Change, the blog shared by Naidoo in Germany. The site also has Spanish and Portuguese YouTube channels — but its YouTube channel lists its location as the United States, suggesting it might be run by an American hoping to export the Qanon ideology.
- A site called Qanon.it (which is a major promoter of Qlobal-Change) is regularly shared to thousands of people on Facebook and Twitter across several different Q-supporting accounts.
- Qanon.it directs readers to an introductory video about Q, which has subtitles in a shocking 20 languages — ranging from French and Chinese to Catalan and Hebrew.
- In May, Italian independent member of parliament and anti-vaxx activist Sara Cunial (formerly a member of the 5 Star Movement) gave a speech in parliament promoting conspiracies that had been popularized by pro-Qanon accounts. Although Cunial did not mention Qanon, she accused Bill Gates, a frequent target of people who follow Q, of sterilizing women in Africa (among other false claims). A video she posted of her speech — which was also published on the site Qanon.it — has been shared more than 29,000 times on Facebook.
- Cunial is not the only politician to promote these theories. At least 10 current U.S. political candidates running for state-level or congressional positions have either pledged allegiance to Q or expressed interest in Qanon.
Why we should care: At first glance, it doesn’t make much sense for Europeans to buy into a conspiracy theory with the U.S. president at its center. But the spread of Qanon across the Atlantic suggests that the conspiratorial worldview at the heart of this belief system is becoming more popular. It allows believers to place themselves on what they see as the right side of history, fighting the elites who are supposedly engaging in dangerous and illegal behavior. It’s simple, and simple transfers easily. It’s also hard to stop.
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Editor’s Note: This post was updated on July 17, 2020, to include more details about Facebook spokesperson Rita Zolotova’s comments to NewsGuard.