A large Facebook page, Rowdy Republican, has been using incendiary right-wing memes to push dangerous misinformation about diabetes to millions of Facebook users. Nearly three months after the page's tactics were exposed by Popular Information, Facebook has finally taken down the Rowdy Republican page, and a related page called A Conservative Nation.
Here is how the operation worked. Rowdy Republican, which had nearly 800,000 fans before it was removed, would post a right-wing meme to attract engagement -- likes, shares, and comments. Here's a post that was live on the Rowdy Republican page earlier this week.
Initially, the post would have no mention of diabetes, presumably to encourage maximum engagement. But a few hours after posting, once the meme was rocketing around the Facebook platform, the post would be edited to include a link to a diabetes scam.
The links lead to the "The Big Diabetes Lie" website. As I reported in September, that website's "fundamental message is that if you have diabetes and listen to your doctor's recommendations, you will die a painful death." Here's an excerpt:
It doesn't matter if you follow your doctors recommendations and dosages exactly as prescribed. This isn't a question of IF, but WHEN. Your health will get worse. The drugs you take will fail. The insulin injections you take will also fail.
If you have diabetes, you simply cannot continue this way - sooner rather than later you WILL die; either from diabetes, its complications, or side-effects from the drugs you take. And it won't be quietly in your sleep either. Getting rushed to the hospital while the paramedics break all of your ribs giving you CPR will be hell on earth.
This fate can be avoided if you purchase a $55 paperback book.
Dr. David Goldstein, one of the nation's top experts on diabetes, told Popular Information that doctors now "know how to prevent all diabetes complications." Nevertheless, patients run into problems because they don't follow their doctor's recommendations or "watch crazy videos" like the one featured on "The Big Diabetes Lie" website. He described the information on the website as extremely dangerous.
Nevertheless, the Rowdy Republican page was extremely successful on Facebook. Over 30 days in August and September, the Rowdy Republican page outperformed USA Today (8 million followers), the Los Angeles Times (2.76 million followers), BuzzFeed News (3.02 million), and Vox (2.43 million).
The A Conservative Nation page operated in the exact same way but had about 125,000 fans, and reached a somewhat smaller audience.
In September, Popular Information told Facebook about the Rowdy Republican page's tactics and asked if the company would take any action. Facebook did not respond. A few days later, however, all the diabetes-related links were removed from the page.
Soon, however, the Rowdy Republican page began posting links to the same scam. Facebook took no action until I contacted them again on Tuesday. On Wednesday afternoon, the Rowdy Republican page and the A Conservative Nation page were removed from Facebook.
"These Pages violate our spam policy and we have removed them from the platform," Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone told Popular Information.
What Rowdy Republican teaches us about Facebook
The operator of the Rowdy Republican page was Alan LeStourgeon, an affiliate marketer. LeStourgeon was able to reach a massive audience on Facebook by posting pro-Trump memes. His success illustrates how incendiary pro-Trump propaganda, which elicits a strong emotional reaction, is ideal content for the platform.
It also shows that Facebook still struggles to identify and remove bad actors. The Rowdy Republican page was not obscure. It was a large page reaching a massive audience of millions. Facebook was unable to identify the page on its own and, even after it was flagged by Popular Information, continued to allow Rowdy Republican to operate for three months.
In this case, the failure of Facebook to act was not just polluting political discourse but endangering people's health.
Merry Christmas, except if you are poor and hungry
Just in time for the holidays, the Trump administration has finalized a rule that will result in 700,000 destitute Americans losing access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. Before the new rule, "able-bodied adults without dependents can receive SNAP benefits for a maximum of three months during a three-year period," unless they are working at least 20 hours a week or are enrolled in a training program. But states were able to request waivers of this rule to account for local circumstances. Thirty-six states, many with Republican governors, currently have waivers.
Under the new rule, states can only apply for a waiver if the state unemployment rate is over 6% and is 20% higher than the national average. (That means that if national unemployment spikes to 8%, a state with a 9% unemployment rate would not be able to request a waiver.) As a result, hundreds of thousands of people struggling to make ends meet will soon be kicked out of the food stamp program. The rule will go into effect in April 2020.
The people impacted by this change are very poor. According to a study by Mathematica Policy Research, "Ninety-seven percent of the SNAP participants who would be affected live in poverty, and 88 percent have household incomes at or below 50 percent of the poverty level or less than $600 a month."
"The policy targets very poor people struggling to work — some of whom are homeless or living with health conditions. Taking away basic food assistance from these individuals will only increase hardship and hunger, while doing nothing to help them find steady full-time work," Stacy Dean of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities told NBC.
The only safety net
The Trump rule targets able-bodied adults without kids. Most of the people in this group "are ineligible for any other form of government financial assistance because they aren’t elderly, severely disabled, or raising minor children." The Trump administration is taking away "the only assistance they can receive to help make ends meet."
The cost, in context
The Trump administration estimates that by taking food benefits away from struggling adults, it will "save hardworking taxpayers $15 billion over ten years." That sounds like a lot, but the Trump administration also signed in a tax cut, mostly benefiting corporations and the wealthy, that is estimated to cost $2.3 trillion over ten years.
That means the cost of the SNAP waivers being eliminated by the Trump administration is 0.6% of the cost of the tax cuts. In part because of Trump's corporate tax cuts, in 2018, Amazon paid nothing in federal income taxes on more than $11 billion in profit. If Amazon paid just a 14% tax rate on its profits, it would pay for the entire SNAP waiver program. The Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy estimates that 60 Fortune 500 companies paid nothing in federal taxes last year.
A broad assault on SNAP
The latest rule is part of a broad assault on the SNAP program. In July, "the Trump administration published a proposed rule that would end the ability of states to automatically enroll low-income families." The move will "kick 3.1 million people off of the SNAP program, according to the USDA."
Automatic eligibility "allows families in some states to make up to 200% of the poverty line — and even have modest savings — and still be eligible for SNAP." There are 43 states that take advantage of the program. Under the Trump proposal, "a worker earning $12.50 an hour with two kids" who receives a 50 cent raise would no longer be eligible for food stamps.
In October, the Trump administration advanced a proposal that would limit how SNAP beneficiaries could use heating costs to offset income. The move would "cut benefits for 19 percent of households" on food stamps -- and kick 8,000 families off of the program entirely.
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