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Sarah Palin's Facebook grift
Sarah Palin (Kris Connor/Getty Images)
Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican nominee for Vice President, is not the cultural icon she was a decade ago. In March, she appeared on "The Masked Singer," where she sang "Baby Got Back" dressed in a pink bear costume. So how is Palin making ends meet?
One source of income, it appears, is her Facebook page, which has 4.5 million followers. An investigation by Popular Information reveals that, since May 4, Palin's Facebook page has linked to an obscure right-wing aggregation site called Analyzing America 280 times.
The page is owned by Joshua Riddle and David Rufful. The pair claim to have founded Analyzing America ten years ago, but only purchased the domain in 2018. The site has been criticized for "extreme right-wing bias, promotion of conspiracies and propaganda." Last year, the site implied that Hillary Clinton might have murdered Jeffrey Epstein.
Each time Palin's Facebook page shared a link to Analyzing America, 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:
Analyzing America and other websites keep track of their visitors through special software — most commonly Google Analytics. Normally, if Palin's Facebook page shared a link from Analyzing America, it would show up on Analyzing America's Google Analytics dashboard as referral traffic from Facebook. It would be difficult to segregate out the traffic referred from Palin's Facebook page from any other Facebook page.
By appending the UTM code, Palin's Facebook page solves this problem. Now Analyzing America can know exactly how much traffic Palin sent to their site. But Palin has no access to the data. So absent a relationship between Palin and Analyzing America, it would be pointless for Palin to append the UTM code. But the UTM code allows Analyzing America to pay Palin for sending traffic to its website.
If this sounds familiar, that's because it is the same method The Daily Wire, the website founded by right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro, used to boost its traffic. The Daily Wire was paying Facebook pages controlled by Mad World News, a noxious site that has built a huge audience on racist and violent content, to link to The Daily Wire. That scheme ended earlier this month after it was exposed by Popular Information because it violated Facebook's rules.
Under Facebook's policy, Facebook pages cannot "accept anything of value to post content that you did not create." This rule, however, appears to be routinely violated by right-wing websites to artificially inflate the popularity of unreliable, low-quality content.
"After an initial investigation, we found there’s enough evidence to merit a deeper review. In the meantime, we are taking temporary enforcement action and demoting the Page posting this content," a Facebook spokesperson told Popular Information.
How The Washington Times games Facebook
The Washington Times has significantly boosted its presence on Facebook through an undisclosed relationship with a large Facebook page called ForAmerica, which has over 7.85 million followers.
Since October 8, 2019, ForAmerica has posted 1,360 links to The Washington Times. Over a recent one month period, June 9 to July 9, links to The Washington Times constituted 67% of all links posted by the ForAmerica page. This data comes from research conducted by the global civil organization Avaaz and provided exclusively to Popular Information.
The Washington Times has only 692,000 followers on its Facebook page. But, since October, its relationship with ForAmerica has allowed it to dramatically increase its distribution on Facebook. Engagement with Washington Times content on the ForAmerica Facebook page frequently exceeds the engagement with Washington Times content everywhere else on Facebook combined.
The evidence strongly suggests that The Washington Times is paying ForAmerica to post its content. Each link shared by the Washington Times includes a UTM code.
ForAmerica is owned by a non-profit organization called America Inc. It is a sister organization to the Media Research Center, a right-wing organization dedicated to exposing the "liberal bias" in the news media. (ForAmerica and Media Research Center share the same address.)
It is unclear what ForAmerica does other than operate a large Facebook page that links to The Washington Times. On its website, which is primarily a feed of its Facebook page, the organization says its "mission is to advance freedom, prosperity and virtue, one click at a time."
Facebook told Popular Information that it has not yet established there is a paid relationship between ForAmerica and The Washington Times.
Coordinated inauthentic behavior
Paying for traffic isn't the only thing that Analyzing America has in common with The Daily Wire. Analyzing America also operates a clandestine network of Facebook pages to promote its content. While these pages list a variety of owners, they all post the same content from Analyzing America at the same time.
The pages in the network include Trump & The Great America (2.1 million followers), Chicks on the Right (1.3 million followers), Young Cons (998,000 followers), The Comical Conservative (2.2 million followers), Rush Limbaugh and the EIB Network (728,000 followers), and Red Symposium (162,000 followers).
The pages list a variety of owners, including Young Conservatives LLC and Gregory Lawrence Burright. Three of the pages list no owner at all. This appears to be a deliberate attempt to conceal the centralized control of all six pages.
Facebook says that "[w]hen we find domestic, non-government campaigns that include groups of accounts and Pages seeking to mislead people about who they are and what they are doing while relying on fake accounts, we remove both inauthentic and authentic accounts, Pages and Groups directly involved in this activity." That appears to be the case here.
But Facebook has previously taken a very narrow interpretation of this policy. Last October, Popular Information exposed more than a dozen large Facebook pages that were exclusive posting content from The Daily Wire in a coordinated fashion. Facebook said it didn't constitute coordinated inauthentic behavior because there were "real people" operating each page. Several months later, the pages disclosed they were all owned and operated by The Daily Wire.
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment on the network of Facebook pages promoting Analyzing America.
CORRECTION: Monday’s Popular Information said that Congressman Glenn Grothman was from Minnesota. Grothman represents Wisconsin. I regret the error.
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