Large network of Facebook pages circulates voting misinformation from obscure right-wing website
Facebook has permitted a large network of Facebook pages and groups — with names like Trump's Deplorable Army, To The Death Media, and One Angry Conservative — to spread disinformation about voting in the 2020 election to millions of people. The network operates by funneling traffic to Conservative Brief, an obscure right-wing website. Conservative Brief does not engage in any original reporting. Instead, it distorts reports from mainstream sources to sow doubt about the legitimacy of the upcoming election.
Here is how it works. On July 13, the Associated Press reported that California had rejected about 100,000 absentee ballots submitted in the March presidential primary — about 1.5% of the total. Most of these ballots, 70,330, were rejected because they arrived late. The state requires ballots to be "postmarked on or before Election Day and received within three days afterward." Others "either didn’t have a signature, or the signature didn’t match the one on record for the voter."
This report was then aggregated on the Conservative Brief on July 14. Author Martin Walsh wrote that the story "lends credence" to Trump's claim that mail-in voting "can pave the way for mass fraud." Walsh said the story means it will be easy "for election works [sic] to simply throw away ballots that they collected from an area in which they assume was more conservative than liberal." All of these claims are baseless.
The post on Conservative Brief was then shared repeatedly across the network with the text: "Dems CAUGHT — 100,000 Illegal Ballots Found." The description of the post is, "They are trying to steal the election!" There is no indication that "Dems" were doing anything. California did not even release a breakdown of the rejected ballots by party. Nor is there any indication that any of these ballots were "illegal" or part of a plot to "steal the election."
Nevertheless, since July 14, this misinformation was posted 48 times across a network of 20 Facebook pages that promote content from the Conservative Brief.
Overall, the piece has been shared more than 100,000 times on Facebook.
The massive distribution to the Conservative Brief article on California ballots is not an anomaly. Over the last 90 days, the network of pages that promote Conservative Brief has generated 30.65 million engagements (a combination of likes, comments, and shares). That's more engagement than the main New York Times Facebook page generated over the same period of time (26.48 million).
The Conservative Brief is owned by Apse Media LLC, a company that was incorporated in Tennessee in February 2020. It lists its headquarters as a residential address in Smyrna, Tennessee. Many of the pages that promote the Conservative Brief, despite being created years ago, are listed as owned by Apse Media. Other pages list no owner, and their use of special "UTM" codes in links they share suggests they are paid by Conservative Brief. Both the artificial coordination between Facebook pages to boost the popularity of Conservative Brief content, and the potential undisclosed financial relationship could violate Facebook's rules.
Beyond the network of 20 pages, about one-third of the engagement of the article is attributable to private groups. Many of these groups, with names like Donald Trump Re-Election Task Force!!!, are run by people associated with Conservative Brief, including Martin Walsh and Carmine Sabia. Walsh and Sabia, the primary writers for the site, are also listed on the Conservative Brief's "About" page, along with Greg Burright, as "owners." Sabia is a former writer for Mad World News, a site that exploits racism and violence to attract engagement on Facebook.
The Conservative Brief is distributing the exact type of election misinformation that Facebook has promised to combat. Just a few days ago, CEO Mark Zuckerberg pledged that Facebook would "attach an informational label to content that seeks to delegitimize the outcome of the election or discuss the legitimacy of voting methods, for example, by claiming that lawful methods of voting will lead to fraud." None of the posts reviewed by Popular Information were initially labeled. (Facebook added the informational label to eight example posts that were flagged for the company by Popular Information.) Last October, Facebook said that "[a]ttempts to interfere with or suppress voting undermine our core values as a company, and we work proactively to remove this type of harmful content." That included a complete prohibition on content that misrepresents "whether a vote will be counted."
And yet, Facebook remains a place where circulating false information about voting methods is rewarded. The largest page in the network that distributes links from Conservative Brief, Trumpian Republicans, was just created in May 2020. It already has over 670,000 followers.
"After an initial investigation, we found there’s enough evidence to merit a deeper review. While that's ongoing, we're taking enforcement action against the Pages posting this content," a Facebook spokesperson told Popular Information.
SHARE THIS EVERYWHERE!!
This week, 14 different pages promoted a surveillance video that “Shows ‘Huge Pile’ Of Mail Just Being Dumped Out” in California. In the video, an unidentified person in a Budget rental tosses out bags of unopened mail in a parking lot and drives away.
Reported in the Washington Examiner, the video was aggregated by Conservative Brief on September 7 and published with the title “Video Appears To Show Truck Dumping Bags Of Mail In California Parking Lot.” All the posts discovered by Popular Information included the description “Fraud Caught on Camera??” and featured “SHARE THIS EVERYWHERE!!” or “Absolutely shameful” as the caption.
The post’s text, along with its accompanying image of a USPS truck, suggests mishandling by the USPS. However, the truck in question is a Budget rental vehicle. The Western Regional Coordinator for the American Postal Workers Union also told CNN that USPS employees were not involved in the incident. Further, contrary to the post’s description, “Fraud Caught on Camera??” this is not an instance of election fraud. California will not begin mailing ballots until 29 days before the election, meaning that the mail depicted in the video does not contain ballots.
50,000 "illegal ballots" that weren't ballots at all
In a similar stunt intended to undermine the integrity of the election, 12 pages in the network shared a Conservative Brief article with the caption “Dems CAUGHT — Judge TOSSES 50,000 Illegal Ballots.” The posts all feature the title “Judge Sides With Trump –– 50,000 Ballots TOSSED in Swing State After Official Altered.”
But “50,000 Illegal Ballots” were never tossed because there were never any illegal ballots to begin with. Rather, the piece is about absentee ballot applications–a major distinction that the posts fail to clarify. The Conservative Brief story linked in the post features an Associated Press story about a judge in Iowa who voided 50,000 absentee ballot applications because they were pre-filled with voters’ personal information — not because they were altered. Despite this, author Martin Walsh writes that this “new report lends credence to those who say the process is ripe for fraud and abuse.”
The cost of getting caught
Right-wing websites have gained huge audiences on Facebook, often by violating the platform's rules. In July, Popular Information exposed how five large Facebook pages controlled by Mad World News, a notorious outlet that exploits fear and bigotry for profit, posted dozens of links each day to The Daily Wire. The scheme allowed the Daily Wire, a website founded by right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro, was able to expand its audience by millions.
Popular Information proved that there was an undisclosed financial relationship between The Daily Wire and Mad World News, which Facebook acknowledged violated its rules. Facebook said that, in response, it was "temporarily demoting Mad World News." That punishment lasted about a month, and now Mad World News' toxic content is freely circulating across the platform.
Facebook decided to let The Daily Wire, which is well-connected at the company, off with a "warning." The Daily Wire, which produces no original reporting, was the top publisher across all of Facebook in July, generating more engagement than CNN, Fox News, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.