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Facebook allows prominent right-wing website to break the rules
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The Daily Wire, the right-wing website founded by pundit Ben Shapiro, is a cesspool of misogyny, bigotry, and misinformation. Its toxic content is also fantastically successful on Facebook, with each story reaching more people than any other major media outlet. A Popular Information investigation reveals some of this success is attributable to a clandestine network of 14 large Facebook pages that purport to be independent but exclusively promote content from The Daily Wire in a coordinated fashion.
This kind of "inauthentic coordinated behavior" violates Facebook's rules. Facebook has taken down smaller and less coordinated networks that promoted liberal content. But Facebook told Popular Information that it will continue to allow this network to operate and amplify The Daily Wire's content.
The Daily Wire's toxic content
What kind of content is featured on The Daily Wire? One representative example is this video by Daily Wire host Andrew Klavan explaining why "gender equality" is a "leftist lie."
The Daily Wire specializes in anti-LGBT bigotry. In this video, Daily Wire host Michael Knowles says that "gay people" don't really "want to be tolerated by society and accepted by society." His evidence is the concept of LGBT "pride," which he calls "the worst sin of all."
The Daily Wire is also a source for misinformation and conspiracy theories. The Daily Wire founder Ben Shapiro, whose site was bankrolled by Texas oil magnates, falsely claims that "there is not that much we can do" to combat climate change. Shapiro also says that the "radical left" is plotting to prevent you from giving money to The Daily Wire and your local church.
The phenomenal success of The Daily Wire on Facebook
According to NewsWhip, a social media analytics company, The Daily Wire was the #11 publisher on Facebook in September, garnering 18,125,590 engagements, which include likes, comments, and shares. The Daily Wire narrowly trailed publications like the New York Times (24.4 million engagements) and the Washington Post (22.4 million engagements).
Engagements are a critical metric on Facebook because it correlates to distribution. The more engagements a piece of content receives, the more people will see it.
But looking at total monthly engagements understates the scale of The Daily Wire's Facebook success. The Washington Post and the New York Times are large news organizations with hundreds of journalists. The Washington Post produced 10,591 pieces that were posted to Facebook in September, and the New York Times produced 13,442. The Daily Wire has a much smaller staff and produced just 1,181 pieces in September.
If you look at Facebook engagements per story, the Daily Wire's performance is extraordinary.
Popular Information conducted an investigation to determine how The Daily Wire is so much more successful on Facebook than every other major publisher. One reason: it breaks the rules.
The secret network of Facebook pages promoting The Daily Wire
Popular Information has uncovered a network of 14 large Facebook pages that exclusively promote content from The Daily Wire. None of the pages reveal their connection to The Daily Wire, and many purport to be independent media outlets.
The "Conservative News" Facebook page, for example, lists conservativenews.com as its affiliated website. But conservativenews.com does not contain any content -- only a link back to the Facebook page, which only publishes links to The Daily Wire.
Conservative News and nearly all of the other sites in the network publish the same content from The Daily Wire, at the same time, with the same text. In other words, they are centrally controlled.
Collectively, these 14 pages have over 8 million fans. In September, they published content from The Daily Wire an average of 303 times per week. Note that, with the exception of the "Being Conservative" page, all the pages posted virtually the same number of pieces per day.
In September, these pages generated about 1.27 million engagements. To put that in perspective, the main Facebook page for BuzzFeed News, a digitally-native outlet known for its social media savvy, generated just 335,000 engagements in September. USA Today's main Facebook page generated 2.35 million engagements in September.
Facebook's algorithm is opaque, but it's likely that the impact of this network is even greater than these numbers suggest. Facebook prioritizes content that is shared from multiple accounts. So the engagement The Daily Wire receives from this network could expand the reach of posts with the same content shared from Ben Shapiro's Facebook page or the main The Daily Wire Facebook page.
So this network of pages is a huge asset for The Daily Wire. The network also appears to be in blatant violation of Facebook's rules.
Facebook will ignore its own rules, continue to allow the network to operate
Facebook's community standards prohibit "inauthentic behavior." That is defined by Facebook "as the use of Facebook or Instagram assets (accounts, pages, groups, or events), to mislead people or Facebook… about the identity, purpose, or origin of the entity that they represent."
That is exactly what The Daily Wire is doing with these Facebook pages. "The Angry Patriot" Facebook page, for example, says it is run by "a frustrated American tired of the establishment taking away our rights and treating American Citizens like third class citizens." In reality, it is centrally run as part of a network that exists to promote content from The Daily Wire.
Earlier this month, Facebook provided further information about its policy regarding "inauthentic behavior" and how Facebook would respond to violators. Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook's Head of Cybersecurity Policy, said that "the actors behind these campaigns are using deceptive behaviors to conceal the identity of the organization behind a campaign, make the organization or its activity appear more popular or trustworthy than it is."
Gleicher explained the punishment for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior is to take down the pages and related "authentic" accounts:
As with our previous takedowns, we will continue looking for groups of accounts and Pages working together to mislead people about who they are and what they’re doing. When we find domestic, non-government campaigns in which the use of fake accounts is central to the operation, we will remove all inauthentic and authentic accounts, Pages and groups directly involved in this activity.
But, in a statement to Popular Information, Facebook acknowledged these pages are engaging in deceptive behavior but will continue to allow them to operate. The company said that "next month" it will roll out "stronger tools to help people better understand who is behind Pages like these on Facebook."
The Daily Wire did not respond to a request for comment.
How Facebook responded to a group of pages that promoted progressive politics
Last year, Facebook responded differently to a much smaller network of accounts that promoted progressive political news. At the time, an activist named Chris Metcalf ran a network of seven pages — Snowflakes, The Resistance, Reasonable People Unite, Hostile Politics, Four Years of Fight, Political News Review and I Did Not Vote For Donald Trump — that he used to promote news of interest to liberals.
Working for years, Metcalf was able to attract 1.8 million fans to these pages. In October 2018, Facebook permanently took down all of Metcalf's pages for engaging in "coordinated inauthentic behavior."
Facebook accused Metcalf and others of using "massive amounts of content across a network of Groups and Pages to drive traffic to their websites." Although Metcalf briefly launched a website that he promoted through his pages, it was defunct at the time of the takedown. And Metcalf always used his pages to promote content from a variety of sources. Facebook denied Metcalf's appeals to reverse his ban.
Facebook acknowledged that there are "legitimate reasons that accounts and Pages coordinate with each other," but "the difference is that these groups are upfront about who they are, and what they’re up to."
The Daily Wire network is not "upfront about who they are" and exists only to drive traffic to The Daily Wire website. But unlike the pages operated by Metcalf, these pages will continue to be able to operate.
Why? Facebook did not answer follow up questions. But earlier this month, a former employee of Facebook's DC office told Popular Information that Joel Kaplan, Facebook's head of global public policy, acts to protect the interest of right-wing websites. Kaplan is a Republican operative who worked in the George W. Bush administration.
"Any time there was an issue with Breitbart or Daily Caller, Joel made the decision, and he always acted to protect them," the former Facebook employee said.
Zuckerberg and Shapiro break bread
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently invited Shapiro, The Daily Wire's founder, to his home for dinner. The purpose of the meeting, Politico reports, was to "talk about issues like free speech and discuss partnerships."
Shapiro has recently emerged as a vocal defender of Facebook. "Democrats are angry at Facebook because they want less free speech," Shapiro tweeted on October 23. Zuckerberg's recent speech at Georgetown was panned by civil rights activists but praised by Shapiro as "quite good" and "correct."
Previously, Shapiro has criticized Facebook for relying on "leftist" fact-checkers, like Politifact and ABC News, to evaluate content. Zuckerberg took this criticism seriously, and Facebook added The Daily Caller, a right-wing website run by Fox News' Tucker Carlson, as one of its fact-checking partners.
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