Facebook admits Ben Shapiro is breaking its rules

The Daily Wire's Ben Shapiro (Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for Politicon) 

Facebook has concluded there is an undisclosed financial relationship between The Daily Wire, the website founded by right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro, and Mad World News, a notorious outlet that exploits fear and bigotry for profit. This relationship, Facebook acknowledges, violates its rules. 

Last week, Popular Information exposed how The Daily Wire has gained unprecedented distribution on Facebook through its relationship with Mad World News. Five large Facebook pages controlled by Mad World News expanded The Daily Wire's audience by millions through the coordinated posting of dozens of links from The Daily Wire each day. 

Facebook previously said it had looked into the matter, found no evidence of a violation, and could not prove a financial relationship. The company now admits the two publishers are working together.

"After further investigation, we’ve found that these Pages violate our policies against undisclosed paid relationships between publishers. Our enforcement typically focuses on the Page distributing the cross-promoted content, which is why we are temporarily demoting Mad World News. We are also warning Daily Wire and will demote them if we see this behavior continue," a Facebook spokesperson said.

The disparate treatment between Mad World News and The Daily Wire raises questions. Why are the sites being treated differently when they conspired together to violate the same Facebook rule? What was the influence of Shapiro's personal relationship with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg?

A Facebook spokesperson said it was standard company protocol to impose a more severe penalty on the publisher posting the link. But the spokesperson also acknowledged there were no publicly available examples that established this protocol. 

The new evidence

Last week, Popular Information reported that, ten or more times per day, five large Facebook pages controlled by Mad World News were posting the same link to The Daily Wire at the exact same time. 

Some of the Mad World News pages have more than 2 million followers. How did they get that large? Mad World News exploits Facebook's algorithm by rewriting racist and violent stories that are months or years old. 

Mad World News does not exist to inform. It exists to make money for its owners, Corey and Christy Pepple. So the notion that the Pepples would, for months on end, post 50 or more links per day to Ben Shapiro's website out of the goodness of their hearts is not credible. The Mad World News Facebook pages did not post links to any other outside websites.

The pattern of posting was not enough to convince Facebook. But there is more evidence that The Daily Wire is paying Mad World News to share its content. The data was provided exclusively to Popular Information by Avaaz, an international non-profit.

Each time the Mad World News Facebook pages share content from The Daily Wire, it appends something called a UTM code. A UTM code is a way for publishers to know precisely how much traffic comes from a particular source. It looks like this:

The Daily Wire and other websites keep track of how many people are visiting each article through special software — most commonly Google Analytics. Normally, if Mad World News posted a Daily Wire link on its Facebook page, the people who clicked would show up in the Daily Wire's Google Analytics dashboard as referral traffic from Facebook. In other words, it would be lumped in with all the other traffic from Facebook, including the Facebook pages owned by The Daily Wire and any other page or person on Facebook. 

By appending the UTM code, Mad World News is enabling The Daily Wire to isolate the traffic Mad World News is sending to The Daily Wire. Mad World News itself has no access to the information. So absent a relationship with The Daily Wire, appending the UTM code is pointless. But the UTM code would allow The Daily Wire to pay Mad World News for sending The Daily Wire visitors through Facebook.

Facebook said it determined that there was a financial relationship between The Daily Wire and Mad World News. The company said the UTM code, provided to Facebook by Popular Information, did not play a significant role in their finding. Facebook declined to share what other evidence convinced them of the existence of the financial relationship.  

The financial relationship violates Facebook's branded content policy. That policy states that Facebook pages cannot "accept anything of value to post content that you did not create." When Mad World News accepts money to post content created by The Daily Wire, both parties break the rules. 

Facebook's failure to enforce the rules has contributed to The Daily Wire's runaway success on Facebook. 

Beyond Mad World News

There is also evidence that The Daily Wire is engaged in similar deals with other large Facebook pages. Think Americana is a Facebook page with over 600,000 followers. (It was originally created in 2015 when it was called "I Hate Hillary.") Think Americana has posted 19 links to The Daily Wire over the last 24 hours. Each post featuring The Daily Wire has the UTM code "thinkamerican" appended to the link. This suggests that The Daily Wire is also paying whoever owns Think Americana to drive traffic to its site. (Think Americana has no confirmed page owner.)

Facebook says it is investigating The Daily Wire's relationship with Think Americana.

Disclosure does not fix the problem

One reason we know The Daily Wire pays Facebook pages to post its links is that, in at least one case, it discloses the payment. The US Chronicle Facebook page has 2.9 million followers. It posts more than two dozen links each day to The Daily Wire. Each post to The Daily Wire includes a disclosure that it is part of a "Paid Partnership."

If you click the small "i" displayed over the photograph, it displays more information about the "partnership." Specifically, it says that "Daily Wire compensated US Chronicle to share this post."

The arrangement, however, is not a permitted use of Facebook's branded content tool. The branded content tool can be used for "a creator or publisher's content that features or is influenced by a business partner for an exchange of value." But here, US Chronicle did not create the content. They are simply publishing The Daily Wire's link. The branded content policy states: "[D]on't accept anything of value to post content that you did not create."

A Facebook spokesman confirmed that The Daily Wire's relationship with US Chronicle also violates Facebook's rules. It's unclear if Facebook plans to impose a penalty on US Chronicle or The Daily Wire. 

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